Part 11: Another Tuesday in Another Coffee Shop

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In A Spirit Of Uncooperation

Gathered in the office of Senate Pro Tempore Graham Norman were five of the most powerful men in Congress: House Minority Leader Richard Childress, House Whip Andrew Delaney, Senate Majority Whip Christian Archibald, and Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Whisk. The lack of communications allowed them to meet in relative secret while other members of Congress scurried around trying in vain to figure out exactly what was going on around the country.

“This is the type of problem that could have a devastating effect,” Graham told the assembled leaders. “If Norma Watkins remains acting president more than 48 hours, she’ll have little choice but to begin taking on presidential tasks regarding legislation. If, God forbid, she remains in that position for more than two weeks, she will have the ability to irreversibly alter the entire legislative agenda. We could lose everything we’ve carefully planned. All that time we put into grooming President Blackstone will be a waste. We have to do something to stop this and we have to do it now while no one is paying a damn bit of attention.”

“I don’t get it,” grumbled Representative Childress, the senior member of the group, “the President made a phone call that went bad, the power on everything on the planet goes out, he passes out in the residence, the Vice President gets assassinated, and Speaker Watkins is suddenly acting president and all this happened without Congress ever being notified of a damn thing. How is that even possible?”

Senator Norman leaned forward, his hands folded on his desk. “Dick, you would have had to be there to believe it. Everything happened so quickly it would make your head spin. There’s no way this was all an ‘accident.’ It was planned and coordinated and I’m willing to bet that when we look into we’re going to find Speaker Watkins and probably several other Democrats behind it. They have effectively attempted a coup to take over the government of the United States.”

“Then they need to be arrested,” Senator Whisk said, his southern drawl a sharp contrast to Graham’s clipped tones. “We cannot stand for such criminal insubordination. They’re taking advantage of a stupid loophole in the Constitution that never should have been passed in the first place. We should never allow anyone to be president who wasn’t elected to serve in that capacity.”

Senator Archibald held up his hand to interrupt Senator Whisk, “Woah, hold on there, John. Let’s not go off half-cocked. We go making accusations without something more than circumstantial evidence and that’s going to bite us in the butt. We’ve got an election next year to worry about. Too many of us are already facing some strong opposition and for one I don’t want my name attached to something that might later be described as treason.”

Senator Whisk waved off the challenge. “That’s bullshit, Chris. If Democrats have put the President in danger and in any way contributed to the murder of the Vice President, explain to me how its treason for us to take action against that? We have to stop them, we have to stop them now, or we’re going to lose the country! The original Constitution only allowed for the Vice President to succeed the President. Anything else is bullshit, I don’t care what the 25th Amendment says.”

Congressman Delaney sat forward. “Graham, you were there. We all know Norma to be an emotional person at times. How did she respond when Andrew was shot? Was she phased at all?”

“I honestly can’t say,” Graham said. “She and I were both in separate vehicles ready to head back here after Andrew had been sworn in. When he and General Lang were shot, Secret Service us grabbed us out of the cars and brought us back inside the White House. She was ruffled to be sure but that could have just as easily have been from the rather rough treatment of the Secret Service. I know Justice Kreuger didn’t waste any time swearing Norma into office. I wouldn’t be surprised if she wasn’t in on the whole thing. I’m finding it very suspicious that the Chief Justice just happened to be out of town when all this happened.”

Rep. Childress coughed hard. “I want to know who’s doing the shooting,” he said. “How did anyone get into the residence with a gun, Graham? Has our Secret Service fallen completely apart or are they in on this whole thing?”

Graham shook his head. “The President wasn’t shot, Dick. He collapsed—passed out. I assume the Chief of Staff is still at Walter Reed with him. This damn communications outage has turned this travesty into a nightmare. I don’t know how they did it, but they’ve created this perfect storm that allows them to take over the government while the American people are blinded.”

Senator Archibald sat forward in his chair. “What’s this I hear that the Secret Service was shooting at each other? We’ve been getting such scattered pieces of information I’m not sure anyone here has a complete picture of what’s going on at the White House.”

Graham shook his head. “That’s not true either, Chris. Although, the possibility that the Service has an imposter in their midst has been raised. With both shootings, whoever was wielding the gun managed to slip into the crowd unnoticed. It’s absolute chaos over at the White House right now. Everything’s on lockdown. Staff members aren’t allowed to leave their offices. No one knows what’s going on or what’s being planned in the office right next to them. The Chief of Staff is at the hospital and I’m not sure who’s running the ship over there right now.”

“Good God, the entire government is crumbling over the lack of a phone system,” Rep. Delaney groused. 

“I told ya’ll four years ago this whole Blackstone experiment wasn’t going to work,” Sen. Whisk said. “The absence of firm leadership in that White House is coming back to get us. We don’t have the control over the White House we thought we’d have. We can’t be pulling all the strings at the same time and right now it looks like someone’s done cut the damn strings! I don’t know how we get this back under our control, Graham. We need you to step up and oppose the Speaker. Say she’s too incompetent to serve.”

“Yeah, right,” Delaney countered. “We put an idiot in the White House thinking we could control him and we’re going to charge someone else with incompetence? The press will roast us live on the evening news.”

“Remember, right now, the press is mute,” Sen. Archibald countered. “We can say what we want now and claim that they’re misquoting us or taking us out of context when or if they eventually get back up and running. As bad as things are, we’ve been given an opportunity to address this tragedy without some goddamn reporter breathing down our necks, dissecting every word we say. I think the incompetence argument works. She’s too emotional. She’s too distracted.”

“She doesn’t even want the job,” Graham added. “She as much as said so herself. I heard her.”

“And if she were to abdicate the presidency,” Sen. Whisk chimed in, “that would make you next in line, wouldn’t Graham?”

Graham chuckled, “Why yes, I do believe you are correct, Mr. Whisk. All we have to do is convince Norma and a few of those loud mouths over in the House that she can’t handle this job and the biggest part of this crisis goes away. I can manage things from the White House until the President returns and then …”

A knock on the door interrupted the meeting. Graham’s Chief of Staff opened the door and handed the Senator a piece of paper. Graham looked at it and his face went pale.

“What is it, Graham?” asked Sen. Whisk, who was seated closest to him.

“Apparently the First Lady has been arrested for attempting to poison the President,” he said. “Secret Service is taking her and most of her staff in for questioning.”

Rep. Delaney tried to swallow his instinctive reaction to laugh. “I gotta say, as conspiracies go, that one kind of makes sense. We’ve all known she hates his guts. They’d be divorced if he wasn’t president.”

“That’s going to make it more difficult to pin this coup on the Democrats, though,” Sen. Whisk said. “And mute or not, the press is going to have a field day with this. They’ll probably say she had something to do with the Vice President’s assassination as well. Once again, Graham, the plan isn’t working!”

“Settle down, John,” Graham said. “Let the press run with that while we work on Norma. That will be sensational enough to run for several days and meanwhile, we can use whatever means are at our disposal to prevent her from solidifying power. If we can get her to step down, one more transition isn’t going to affect the general public at all. Hell, the majority of people have never even heard of the 25th Amendment. We get her out, me in, and blame the whole damn thing on the First Lady. I don’t see how we lose in that scenario.”

Almost immediately, the mood felt lighter in the Senator’s office as they joked back and forth about the First Lady attempting to poison the President.  The consensus was that this was a better outcome than they could have orchestrated for themselves. Everyone was enjoying the moment so much that they forgot Graham’s Chief of Staff was still in the room until he cleared his throat.

“Senator, I’m afraid there’s another piece of news. Speaker Watkins is on her way back to the Hill and she’s inviting the members of the Senate to a joint session,” he said. “She should be here within the hour and the session will commence 30 minutes after her arrival in the Chamber.”

The joyful mood instantly reversed. 

“She can’t do that,” Sen. Childress said.

“Yes, she can,” Rep. Delaney countered. “She’s only acting president. She can still operate as the Speaker as well and it’s well within her purvue to call a joint session either as part of the emergency or …” he paused and swallowed hard, “as acting President of the United States.”

“Fuck!” Graham exclaimed, pounding both fists on his desk. “I knew that bitch couldn’t be trusted.”

Senator Archibald stood up, signaling an end to the meeting. “Gentlemen, we can have but one goal. We cannot allow Norma Watkins to become President of these United States and I really don’t care what it takes to stop her.”

Longing For More

The site of several bags crammed full of food was enough to make everyone in the apartment happy for several minutes. Even Miranda managed to find a smile again as Amanda guided the group through the creation of a decent meal that was actually sufficient for everyone, including Barry. Adam woke up and joined them as well, which brought additional joy to the group. As they sat around the living room eating and chatting, an outside observer might have gotten the impression that this was a group of friends with long-standing ties. They shared stories of places they’d been, experiences they had, and the types of coffee they liked, which Reesie noted.

As they finished the meal and cleared the dishes, conversation tilted more toward speculation as to when the water might go down and how difficult it might be to get back to their families.

“I live 17 miles away,” Amanda said. “Even if I were in good enough shape to make that hike at all, I don’t think I could ever do it alone and I know I couldn’t do it in one day. The thought of having to camp out by myself in between here and there scares me.”

“Everyone’s welcome to stay here as long as they need to,” Natalie offered. She looked at Darrell who nodded in agreement. “It’s not like any of us made plans for this and I doubt it was covered in anyone’s wilderness training course.”

“The fact that we don’t know what’s going on outside our own neighborhood doesn’t help,” Darrell added. “We’ve not seen anyone around here because the water’s too high and the storm pretty much leveled everything. Other places might not be so safe. People do crazy things when they’re scared.”

“Or when they think no one’s looking,” Carlson added. “I’d be willing to bet places like the malls and grocery stores are being looted of everything on their shelves. If people think they can get something for nothing, they’ll be there and they’ll shoot you over a flat-screen TV.”

Hannah sat on the couch and tried to find a comfortable position. “I’ve seen it happen too many times,” she said. “I’m not sure we’re nearly as civilized as we think we are when we can’t be trusted to behave reasonably. I don’t think there’s ever been a disaster or storm of any kind that didn’t bring out the looters.”

“I think it’s because so many people are so poor, though,” Gloria said as she sat on the floor next to her grandmother. “When people live their entire lives in poverty, doing without the things they see other people enjoying, we kinda have to expect them to jump at the opportunity to get some of those things, especially food.”

“Perhaps if people had better morals,” Hannah said. “Jesus told us to not worry about material things, that God would provide. Just like today, we had a need, and God took care of us.”

Reesie rolled her eyes. “Yeah, that’s just like God. He takes care of the 13 of us and how many people did he let die? Have you taken a look outside? That tornado took out hundreds of people right here in our own neighborhood. They never had a chance. And I can promise you, there were plenty of church-going, upstanding, helpful people who lived there. They’re gone now. That doesn’t exactly seem like God providing a damn thing.”

“Sometimes God lets people die to save them from having to endure something worse,” Hannah said defensively.

Reesie sat up on her knees, her aggravation showing in her face. “Something worse than dying in a moment of sheer terror as your own daughter is dragged under, her lungs filling with water as she drowns? There’s something worse than that? God didn’t do a damn thing to save her or Reggie or Marti. They were all gone in a second, scared, helpless, and without any hope. And while I can’t speak for your daughter or Marti, I know damn well Reggie was as moral as anyone sitting on the front row of a church on Sunday morning. He took good care of his Momma and three little sisters. He was a mentor in Benton High’s after school program. Every day, when he finished his shift at the coffee shop, he would take the day-old pastries to the homeless shelter and then stay and try to help people get back on their feet. He was a good person. Reggie was the epitome of morality.  So why the fuck did God let him drown?”

The mention of her mother was too much for Gloria. She began sobbing and ran toward the shadows of the hallway with her hands covering her face. Toma glared at Reesie as she followed. “Thanks, that was anything but helpful,” she said as she passed.

Hannah seemed unfazed. “God’s ways are not our ways,” she said. “Who are we to know the mind of God? He sees what we cannot see. His gaze extends beyond time so that he knows the outcome of our lives even before we begin living them. All things work together for God’s purpose, not ours. I’ve seen so many tragedies in my life, endured so much heartache and pain. I’ve lost my husband. I lost a little boy when he was only two. Both my sisters and brother are already gone. So why does God insist that I keep living? Why am I the one sitting here and not someone else? The only reason can be that God still has something planned for me, something he wants me to do that furthers his kingdom.”

“That’s the biggest pile of apologetic bullshit I’ve ever heard,” Reesie scoffed. “Don’t give me that ‘God’s ways are not our ways’ bullshit. All that does is excuse and try to cover up the horrors that have plagued our existence for thousands of years. Why did God allow black people to be slaves? ‘His ways are not our ways.’ Why did God allow three million Jews, his own ‘chosen’ people, to be exterminated at the hands of a fucking mad man? ‘God’s ways are not our ways.’ Why does God allow innocent little children to be shot at school by fucking white teenage sociopaths who were too fucking crazy to be accepted by their peers or anyone else with a brain? ‘God’s ways are not our ways.’ Every time something horrible happens God gets a pass because we’re supposed to believe that this is all part of some greater plan. I call bullshit. There is no plan. There is no God. We’re all here on our own, fending for ourselves in a world that would just as soon eat us all alive.”

“Careful, Reesie,” Amber whispered from the back of the room.

“That doesn’t seem like a very inclusive opinion,” Amanda said from the kitchen. “We don’t all have to agree on matters of religion. Even religion doesn’t agree with itself.”

Barry shifted his weight in the chair. “God or no God, we’re in a difficult position. Maybe ‘God helps those who help themselves,’ or maybe we just have to figure things out on our own. Either way, the end result is the same. We can’t sit here waiting for someone to save us. I don’t have to make that trip back to my house to know that I’ve lost everything. Even if all this hadn’t happened, I was probably going to lose everything anyway. I’m broke. No one wants to hire the fat guy. If Amanda didn’t hire me, I’m getting evicted at the end of the month so either way, disaster or no disaster, the end result is the same. All the storm did was shorten the time frame a bit. Blame God, blame fate, it doesn’t matter. I’m still homeless, broke, and without a job any way you look at it.”

“Don’t worry,” Amanda said. “You’re a good person. We’ll figure something out.”

“I think it helps to have something to believe in,” Adam said, leaning on the wall next to the kitchen. “I don’t know what all happened today and I don’t know anyone here except Amber, but I like to believe God is at the very least watching out for us. Why else am I here? How else do I explain Miss Amber being here to take care of me?” He paused and looked back at Amber. “I’ll be honest, when I first opened my eyes and saw you standing over me, I thought I must be dying. It brought back so many memories of you taking care of my Angela.” He wiped back a tear. “How could I ever believe you were not a godsend then and even more now? When things have been the darkest, you’ve been that light. How can I not believe God sent you?”

Amber walked over and gave Adam a hug. “I promised I’d take care of you, Adam,” she said softly. 

Carlson, who wasn’t one to let a sentimental moment get in the way of utter depression, stood up from his place in the middle of the floor and said, “I don’t care what anyone believes. We’re all screwed. We’ve all lost our homes. We don’t even know yet how many of us have lost our families. We’ve lost jobs. Reesie lost her coffee shop. The whole neighborhood is gone and for all any of us know the entire city could be nothing but trash at this point. I’m with Barry, we need a plan. The only problem is, I don’t know what we have to work with. There’s no power, no cell phone service, and no transportation. Until we can get out of here and look around everything else is kind of meaningless.”

“I wouldn’t plan on anyone leaving any time soon,” Darrell said. “There’s a good five feet of water covering everything and it still looks like it could rain more. Just chill here and we’ll figure shit out as the water goes down and we know what we have to work with.”

“I need my meds,” Miranda said quietly.

Natalie walked over to the young woman who had been sitting curled up in the corner and crouched down beside her. “Are they in your apartment?” she asked.

Miranda nodded. “Mom kept them on the shelf next to the coffee mugs. But we can’t get to them. My apartment’s flooded.”

Putting her arm around the girl, Natalie said, “Don’t worry, we’ll figure something out.” She looked up at Darrell for backup.

“She’s in 104, right behind the stairwell,” Darrell said. “I can wade the water easily enough, it’s the current that’s the issue. One wrong move and you’re gone. We would need a rope. Tie off to the stairwell for safety.”

“And I’m guessing neither of you are mountain climbers,” Carlson said wryly. 

Darrell laughed. “Two nerds like us? She sometimes gets all brave and daring when she’s chasing a story, but the most adventurous I get is trying a new beer every once in a while.”

Natalie smiled. “You know, maybe if we dug around a little bit we might be able to string together enough extension cords to get you into her apartment.”

“That’s a thought,” Darrell said. “Or I think I have some 12-foot cabling in a closet. That could probably work. Just enough to keep me from being swept away.”

Natalie looked back to Miranda. “How soon do you need your medicine?”

“I take it in the mornings,” the girl said. “Mom always came by at 8:00 to make sure I took it.”

“Then we’ll make sure you have it by then,” Natalie said assuringly. “Maybe the water will go down overnight.”

Amber walked over and looked out the glass door. There was little question that the scene outside was about as depressing and hopeless as anything could be. The water was still as fast and swirling as it had been earlier. Clouds to the North looked ominously threatening. There was no other sign of life than what existed inside that apartment. Yet, she knew they were not alone. There were others out there, somewhere. She could feel it. What she didn’t know was whether they could be trusted to help.

“You know, I believe in miracles,” Amber said, turning from the door. “Regardless of one’s belief system, I think amazing things happen outside the realm of reasonable explanation. I believe in hope, not because of what I’ve read in a book or heard from a pulpit but because I choose to not give up. I choose to believe that everything eventually turns out okay. Good wins. Why? Because I’ve gone to war with every form of darkness imaginable and I’ve kicked its ass every time. We’ve got this, guys. We’ve got all the resources we need right here in this apartment.”

Roscoe stood up and shook himself before delivering a shrill bark.

“Well, maybe everything except pee pads,” Amber said, laughing. She walked over and hooked a finger through the leash loop of the dog’s collar. “C’mon, big guy, let’s find a place for you to pee.”

Into The Storm

“Major Davis, sir! We’ve got a loose tarp!”

Between the din of the constant activity and the pounding of the rain on the hangar’s corrugated tin roof, it was difficult for anyone to hear anything that was being said. When the Major failed to respond, the Lieutenant shouted again, “Major Davis, sir! “The tarp is loose! We’ve got water breaching into the bunker!”

This time the Major heard the warning and turned to address the Marine. “How bad a breach are we talking about, Lieutenant?”

“Looks pretty bad from here, sir. The whole Northwest corner is unsecured,” was the response.

Major Davis paused for a moment and looked up at the roof as he listened to the unrelenting storm before turning to his right and shouting, “Sergeant Mullen! Give me ten men in tactical assault gear. You’ve got 15 minutes!”

“Sir! Yes, Sir!” was the automatic response.

“Pardon me, Major, but tactical assault gear?” The Lieutenant asked.

Major Davis explained, “The storm out there is as bad as any combat situation you’ll find, maybe worse. The wind is unrelenting. That hail can take a Marine down in a matter of seconds. At this velocity, the rain is blinding. Anyone running out there without heavy gear is going to be downed before they get five feet from the door. They’ll also need plenty of rope to make sure none of them get lost because once they’re out there finding their way back here could be next to impossible.”

Outside, Tom Russet was finding the Major’s words to be true. Protected only by the lightweight lab coat, Tom had barely taken a dozen steps from the enclosure before he was knocked over by the high winds. Getting back up as the rain and hail relentlessly pounded on him had been difficult. Holes were torn in the coat. When Tom reached up to wipe the rain from his face, he discovered that he was bleeding, though he couldn’t tell from where or how severely. 

Struggling to his feet, he kept hunched over, trying to stay lower to the ground so that the wind could not catch him as easily. He had no idea if he was still headed toward the administration building. For that matter, he wasn’t sure he was heading toward any building at all. He couldn’t see the enclosure he had just left. He was surrounded by massive walls of rain and hail. Tom considered that his only option was to try and keep running in one direction or die. At least if he kept moving that increased his chances of running into one of the buildings somewhere. Eventually. Wiping the blood and rain from his face yet again, he tried moving yet again.

Sgt. Mullen and his men reported back to Major Davis in less time than they had been given. Major Davis’ instructions were precise. “You’ll need 300 yards of rope. Tie off to the concrete posts just inside the hangar doors. Treat it like a horizontal repelling exercise. Everyone stays connected to that rope at all times. Go out, secure that tarp, and get back in here. That’s it. Keep your men close because no one’s going to hear you at all and they won’t see you from more than a couple of feet away. Use combat protocol. The weather is your enemy. Assume that anything encountered out there is unfriendly and respond accordingly. This is a helluva lot more dangerous than it looks, Sarge. Don’t fuck it up.”

“Sir, yes sir!” The sergeant said as he saluted. Turning to his team he yelled. “You heard the Major, let’s tie off that rope and get started before this storm gets any worse!”

As they trotted off toward the hangar door, Major Davis grabbed the arm of a Master Sergeant standing nearby. “I don’t trust this storm. Give me another 12 men standing by. If that rope goes slack for more than three seconds, pull ‘em back in. No hesitating. We’re not risking losing anyone in the rain.”

“Aye, sir!” the sergeant responded. “Echo Company, fall in!” he yelled. He looked back at the Major, smiling. “We’re about to put all those tug-of-war skills to good use.”

Major Davis smiled and saluted, dismissing the Master Sergeant. He was going to watch the operation carefully. Water in the bunker was inevitable in a storm like this but the last thing he need was for the place to flood. As soon as the storm passed they would want to return to search and rescue operations. The job was difficult enough when everything was dry. Attempting it in knee-deep or deeper water would reduce the chances of finding survivors.

Sergeant Mullen double and triple checked to make sure that the rope was tied off securely then latched his gear onto the rope. Privately, he questioned the wisdom and methodology of what they were doing. Full assault gear not only meant they were wearing heavy kevlar vests but that they were also carrying numerous weapons necessary for combat. He understood needing the protection of the vests—this storm was worse than anything he had ever seen, but he failed to see the need for the weaponry, especially their rifles. Even if they did somehow encounter an unfriendly, and he couldn’t imagine how such a person could have gotten on the base or why they would be out in this weather, the heavy rain would make it difficult if not impossible for the rifles to function properly. These were thoughts to be saved for after the operation was completed successfully, though. Challenging the Major now would be insubordination and the sergeant didn’t want that on his record. There was a job to do. Talk could come later.

The rope was marked every ten yards so that the sergeant could keep track of how far out they were. Visibility was even worse than he had suspected. The protective goggles he wore helped protect his eyes from the hail but the need to stop and wipe off the rain every two or three steps slowed their progress. As they neared the point where the tarp should be, the sergeant used the butt of his rifle to feel in front of him so that he wouldn’t inadvertently fall into the bunker himself. When he finally found the edge of the tarp, he picked it up and handed it to the Marine behind him, who in turn handed it to the one behind him, the sergeant slowly pulling the flapping tarp to him as they formed a line ten feet from the edge of the bunker. More than once the wind pulled the tarp from their hands, forcing them to back up and start again. 

Pulling and straining at the immense canvas was more difficult than any of the Marines could have anticipated. Completely soaked by the rain, the canvas now weighed more than twice its original weight and still, the wind played with it as though it were tissue paper. The metal grommets along the edge had the force of small hammers as they slapped upside the Marine’s heads. Only after several minutes of struggling was the team able to gain control of the tarp and get it resecured. Mission completed. 

Turning around, Sergeant Mullen motioned for the team to begin returning to the hangar as quickly as they could. 

Inside the hangar, the Master Sergeant took the intermittent slack in the rope as a sign that the team was heading back. “Keep that rope taut,” he instructed the 12 Marines who had “volunteered” for the assignment. Both he and Major Davis watched intensely. For over 40 minutes the continual bouncing off the rope was the only clue they had that the team was still out there. They couldn’t see more than a couple of feet past the edge of the hanger. Everything beyond that was a solid wall of gray.

Tom couldn’t see where he was going, either. He had completely lost his bearings in the first few minutes of being out in the storm. Crawling along the tarmac more than walking, he wondered if he was going in circles and feared that he could easily fall into the bunker if he wasn’t careful. Feeling as though he had been out in the storm for hours, there was a sense of relief when he fell blindly into the rope. What surprised him was the Marine that fell on top of him.

There was a sense of surrealness as Tom first felt his hands being restrained by zip ties and then lifted from the ground by his shirt collar. Next came the unmistakable feeling of a rifle barrel in his back. Something was slipped around his waist and the next thing he knew he was secured to the rope, forced to move forward, at times feeling as though he were being dragged toward a destination he could not see. There wasn’t a chance to run but at this point, Tom didn’t care. He was too exhausted and in too much pain to consider running. If this was the beginning of the end, so be it. He had still managed to disrupt the world. They would have no choice but to change.

Inside the hangar, the disruption in the rope and the team’s sudden stop was cause for concern. “What’s wrong?” Major Davis shouted. “Get those Marines in here, now!”

The Master Sergeant added two more people to the pull team. “I don’t care if you knock them off their feet, get them in here now.

The Marines at either end of the rope weren’t sure what had happened, either. They had felt the hard tug that forced them to stop, then sensed something of a minor struggle but everything seemed to have been resolved before anyone at either end could move enough to see what was really going on. 

Cheers and applause rose from those watching as the first team member emerged from the massive gray wall of water and stepped into the hangar. Whoops and yells continued for the second, third, and fourth thoroughly soaked, muddy, and worn out Marines returned. The group went silent, though, at the sight of the bloody, drenched, and restrained analyst in the white coat. Only modest applause continued as the remainder of the team entered while Major Davis ran over to figure out where, how and why the analyst became part of the group.

“Lieutenant,” Davis said addressing the Marine whose rifle was still at Tom’s back. “You seem to have picked up something extra along the way. Care to explain?”

“He fell into the rope on our way back, sir,” the lieutenant explained. “I didn’t see where he came from. He was just suddenly there. So I did what you ordered us to do. I treated him as an unfriendly, restrained him, secured him to the rope with my belt and a carabiner, and brought him on in.”

“So you did,” Davis responded. He reached out and took the ID still hanging around Tom’s neck. “Mr. Russet, please come with me. I think there’s someone who will be very interested in talking with you.

Perry knew something significant was taking place at the front of the hangar but was unable to see over all the other tents standing between him and the opening. Neither had any of the Marines nearby been able to explain the commotion. When he saw Major Davis approaching with a person in a white lab coat he became momentarily excited that they had rescued another analyst from the bunker. The man was still wet and bloody to the point that Perry couldn’t tell who it was.

Major Davis handed Tom’s ID to Perry and said, “This seems to be one of your guys, Colonel. He just happened to fall into our team while we were resecuring the tarp over the bunker.”

Perry looked at the ID. The photo looked almost nothing like the person in front of him. “Glad you could join us, Tom. Tell me, what team were you on?”

Tom hesitated a moment before answering. “Green team, sir.”

“Major, get this man cleaned up and given the necessary medical attention to treat his wounds then put him in the most secure facility you can create under 24-hour guard. This man is to be held as an enemy combatant until we have a chance to more thoroughly address his situation.”

Major Davis looked at Perry as though he’d lost his senses. “Sir, with all due respect, do you think that’s necessary?”

Perry shifted himself into the most upright position he could manage. “Major, this man is a traitor and is likely responsible for this whole mess. I don’t trust him and you shouldn’t either. If I had a brig I’d throw him in it myself. Get him cleaned up but make sure he’s secure at all times. No exceptions. He doesn’t even get to take a shit without a guard watching him.”

“Yes sir,” Davis responded. He motioned to the Lieutenant whose gun was still pointed at Tom. “You heard the Colonel. Let’s go build a brig and toss him in it.”

Tom glared at Perry as he was led away. He knew this wasn’t yet the end.

An Unexpected Life

Natalie let Amber and Roscoe out the door and that served as an inaudible hint for everyone else to stretch or reposition themselves. Gwen left the chair in the corner for the first time in over an hour, walked to the patio door and looked out at all the nothingness below, wondering if there was anyone still out there. Barry pulled himself to his feet and joined her. She looked at him and smiled. Neither said anything. Looking into that discouraging abyss was its own mood, a somber scene that didn’t speak well for their future or anyone else’s. 

Gloria and Toma returned to the living room but conspicuously avoided sitting close to Hannah. Reesie stood and walked over to them. “Look, I’m sorry if …”

Toma waved her off. “Not now, please. I know you mean well, but there are other issues we don’t want raised in public. You couldn’t have known.”

Reesie looked compassionately at the grieving young woman and walked to the kitchen more because there wasn’t really anywhere else to go than for any specific purpose. She leaned back against the sink and let her thoughts regurgitate the events of the past several hours. Pushing down her worries about Tinera and Ravie had allowed her to focus on surviving, getting through the moments that had threatened her own life. Now, though, it was getting increasingly difficult to hold them back. 

She wondered if Tinera had made it to the daycare in time to rescue Ravie before the flood had gotten too bad. Some comfort was found in knowing they hadn’t been in the line of the tornado but she also knew that fear wasn’t something her little boy handled well. His inability to see well or communicate clearly made it difficult for his daycare teachers to always know how to help him. He would often express his exasperation through violent outbursts. Tinera was great at helping him through those moments. 

Natalie wandered over and provided Reesie with some distraction from her thought. “Not the day we had planned, is it?” the young writer said. “I keep telling myself this will make one hell of a story when it’s all over.”

“Assuming any of us are alive to tell it,” Reesie said. The tone of her voice was tense and emotional. “I lost my shop. I don’t know where my wife or my baby are. One of my best friends was swept away and drowned. Who knows what else I’ve lost? This day can fucking go to hell.”

Natalie sighed as she leaned back on the counter next to Reesie. “Yeah, one thing today has reinforced is that there are zero guarantees. No matter how hard one works, never mind all the precautions you take to make sure you’re ready for financial emergencies and all those other things my Dad warned me about, it can all be taken away without warning in a matter of minutes. This morning I was ready to kick Darrell out. Now, I don’t know what I’d do without him. I’m scared. Everyone here is scared.”

Amanda, who had been standing with her back to them, looking out across the living room, turned around to join the conversation. “We’ve all lost, haven’t we?” she said quietly. “Even if we get through this and everyone we love is still alive and okay, we’ve still lost. I don’t have to walk over to the balcony to know that there’s nothing out there. And the more we don’t know, the more frightened we are. My older kids were at school. They should be safe but I don’t know that. My baby’s at home, which should be flood-proof, but is it? I’ve no idea where my husband is, either. It’s all rather maddening.”

“I keep telling myself, at least it’s not war. Nobody is shooting at us,” Natalie said. “As the day goes on, though, that’s less comfort than it was when this all started. At least if someone were shooting at us we’d know someone else is out there. This quiet is unnerving.”

Reesie and Amanda both agreed.

“I’m used to there being noise of some kind almost 24/7,” Reesie said. “I mean, I run a coffee shop. From the moment I unlock the door every morning, there’s noise. Even after I close up, we’ve got the music going, we’re dancing around as we clean up and do prep work. I go home, Ravie’s squealing, there’s dinner cooking, more music, more dancing … This quiet is not natural.”

Amanda smiled. “I used to wish for this kind of quiet. With three kids running around the house, especially on a rainy day, the noise level was excruciating. How many days have I spent yelling at them to be quiet?” She paused and bit her lower lip. “And now I’d give anything for that noise. Any noise.”

Reesie reached over and pulled Amanda in for a hug, then pulled Natalie in to join them. “Maybe we just need to make some noise of our own,” she said as she pressed the other two close to her.”

“Sure, let’s talk about God some more,” Natalie teased. “That went over really well, don’t you think?”

Amanda and Reesie laughed but it was that nervous kind of laugh one uses when trying to brush off a comment that hit a little too close to home.

Darrell walked over and joined the women. “You know, seeing the three of you over here like this scares me,” he said. “What are you plotting?”

“How we’re going to use this opportunity to take over the world,” Reesie said, smiling.

Darrell chuckled. “I believe you could do it,” he said. He looked at Natalie and said, “The fact you guys got all these people over here from the coffee shop through all that water is pretty fucking impressive. If you can do that, you can do anything.”

Natalie shrugged. “We lost three people,” she said, leaning tighter into Reesie’s side.

“But you didn’t lose everyone,” Darrell countered. “And that could have happened. I’m still scared to go down into that water, even tied off to the stairwell. But you not only fought the current and the rising water, but you also saved a person who was completely unconscious the entire trip! Who does that? You guys aren’t giving yourselves enough credit. You made it here, where it’s at least sort of safe. That’s saying a lot.”

Just then, they were all startled by the sound of Roscoe barking outside. Darrell and Natalie ran for the door with Reesie and Gwen just a few steps behind them. Stepping out onto the landing, they found Roscoe standing at the top of the stairs, barking. Amber was nowhere to be seen. Gwen rushed to the dog, kneeling by his side. He gave her face a quick lick and then barked at the stairs again.

Darrell, Natalie, and Reesie peered over the railing, looking for Amber but not seeing her. 

“Where could she have gone?” Reesie asked. “I thought she was just taking the dog to pee.”

“Maybe she heard something downstairs,” Darrell said, looking knowingly at Reesie.

“Shhhh, listen,” Natalie instructed. They leaned over the railing and heard a series of thumps and then the crash of breaking glass.

“I’m going down there,” Darrell said.

“Right behind you,” added Reesie.

The three of them shoved past Gwen and Roscoe and headed down the stairs. Gwen had to keep a tight hold on the dog to keep him from joining them. As they reached the second-floor landing, they found Amber lying on the concrete, her face and arms bleeding from cuts and broken glass. They rushed over to help but Amber motioned for them to stay back.

“Hold on,” she said as she pulled herself up. “I’m not done with this jackass yet.” She ran back into the apartment, the same one where they had found the food, and once again there were the unmistakable sounds of punches landing hard on someone’s body, furniture thrown and crashing against walls, and then, finally, breaking glass as the patio door shattered, followed shortly by the splash of someone, or something, falling into the water below. 

The waiting trio looked at each other and ran into the dark apartment, hoping that Amber hadn’t been the one to go for a swim. She met them in the apartment’s kitchen, having grabbed towels and pressing them against her face to stop the bleeding.

“What happened? Who was that?” Reesie asked, grabbing more dish towels and holding them to the cuts on Amber’s arms.

“We are definitely not alone,” Amber said. “People are floating on the debris, climbing into whatever, wherever they can. I heard someone down here and thought it might be whoever had furnished the food. I came to check and this idiot decided to take a swing at me.”

“Do you think it was someone who has something to do with …” Darrell started.

“No,” Amber interrupted. “This guy was only interested in what he could grab and take with him. Small stuff, like cash and jewelry and we know there’s none of that here.”

“So, we have floating looters,” Natalie said. “That’s great.”

Roscoe barked from the landing above them and Amber suddenly realized who all was in the apartment with her. “Wait, if you guys are down here with me, who’s watching things upstairs? Please tell me you didn’t leave the door open.”

They all looked at each other and quickly turned, running up the stairs as fast as they could. Reaching the third-floor landing, they found Gwen crouched against the wall with Roscoe standing protectively in front of her. She pointed toward the far end of the hallway. “Someone climbed over the railing and went into that apartment on the end.”

Amber, Darrell, and Reesie raced to the last apartment on the floor and found the door slightly open. Amber motioned for the others to stay back. Natalie quickly ushered Gwen and Roscoe into her apartment and shut the door behind her. At the end of the hallway, they could hear the intruder ransacking the unoccupied apartment. Amber motioned for Darrell to get on the opposite side of the door while Reesie crouched behind her. Going into the apartment was too dangerous. The walls and lack of escape could too easily become an entrapment if something went wrong, and there was a lot that could go wrong.

Soon enough, the noise stopped and a dark-clad person came running out of the apartment. Amber’s arms wrapped tightly around the body. Darrell grabbed hold of the legs, lifting the person off the ground as they struggled to get away. Reesie grabbed the head and found herself looking in the face of a child, one no more than 14 or 15 years old.

“What the fuck? This is just a kid,” she exclaimed. “Child, what are you doing out here?”

The teen continued to struggle and kick against the tight constraints. “Let me go!” the young voice said. “What do you think I’m doing? I’m trying to survive, just like you are sister.”

“I am not your sister,” Reesie warned. “Where did you come from? Why aren’t you at home or someplace safe?”

“I got no home no more,” the child said. “Everything’s gone. They all left without me.”

“Your family left without you?” Reesie asked.

The child shrugged. “I guess. I mean, I went to where home used to be and there wasn’t nothin’ there no more. No house, no Mom, no sisters. I guess they all just left.”

Reesie and Amber looked at each other as Darrell carefully put the teen’s feet back on the ground.

“I’m just lookin’ for food and a place to chill, you know?” the kid said. “I gotta take care of myself now.”

“You’re coming with us, at least for now,” Reesie said.

At that, the teen immediately started trying to escape again but Amber’s grip on him was too tight. “Hold it,” Amber said. “You’re not in trouble. We’ve got an apartment down the hall. You can stay with us until the water goes down and we can figure out something safe for you. What’s your name?”

The child looked up at Amber, her body nearly three times the size of the teen’s. “You’re not gonna call the cops, are you?”

Amber shook her head. “We can’t. Cell service is dead.”

“My name’s Camille but you all can call me Cam,” the girl said, shrugging. “You guys got anything to eat that isn’t like soaking wet?”

The three adults laughed but Cam was still on guard. She had swum and floated from place to place for hours looking for anything still edible, any place that might be safe. She had already resigned herself to the reality of being on her own. Trusting these three strangers, especially two white people she’d never seen, was against her basic nature.

“Come with us,” Reesie said. “I think we can find something for you. Do you like pasta?”

Cam nodded.

“Good, we have a lot of that.”

Reesie carefully took Cam’s hand and headed toward the apartment. As she did, Darrell put his hand on Amber’s shoulder, motioning for her to hang back. When the other two were a safe distance away, he asked, “What the fuck happened down there? We need to get you patched up. Those cuts look deep.”

Amber smiled. “Desperate times lead people to do desperate things, just like with Cam. Not everyone’s going to be nice. We have to be ready for that. It’s likely to get worse before it gets better.”

“Yeah, but you look like someone tried killing you,” Darrell countered. “That doesn’t make sense if someone’s just looking for food.”
“I don’t think that’s all they were looking for,” Amber said. “Fortunately, I heal quickly.” She removed a blood-stained towel from her arm. The worst of the cuts had stopped bleeding, it’s depth and severity hardly noticeable. “Probably wouldn’t hurt to hit it with some Neosporin and a bandage or two,” she laughed.

Darrell gave her a cautious side-eye. “You are one interesting person, Amber.”

She smiled. “Thank you very much. You’re rather entertaining yourself.”

What To Say

The White House conference room was buzzing with chatter as Wilson took his place at the center of the table. He cleared his throat and waited for the noise to die down. “I’ve read through the first draft and let me tell you right now, that’s the worst piece of political bullshit I’ve seen and I’ve been working in this shit pile for 30 years. I’m not even going to show this to the acting president.” Wilson looked sternly around the room. “I told you we needed to shelve the partisan rhetoric on this one. This isn’t the time to try to make anyone look good, not President Blackstone, not acting President Watkins. We’re not merely addressing Congress. We’re addressing the nation. Sooner or later all this is going to get out to the press and it’s going to be one of the most frightening messes this nation has encountered since the start of World War II. Now, sit down and let’s do this right this time.”

Wilson sat down, pulling his chair up to the table. Others in the room did the same, waiting for him to take the lead. Instead, he nodded to Terry and asked, “Where do you think the press is on this?”

“There’s a lot they still don’t know and much of what they know, or think they know, they don’t understand,” Terry said. “I’ve been asked enough questions about the 25th amendment this afternoon to fill a textbook. If the press is uncertain about how the whole successorship thing works, you can bet the public isn’t going to understand and I’m not sure how many of the people on Capitol Hill understand.”

Wilson nodded. “Makes sense. This has all happened quickly and when it finally gets out it’s going to hit the entire country like a ton of bricks. They’re not going to know how to handle it all. Karen, how’s this going to go down on the Hill?”

Karen leaned forward on the table, looking as though she’d run a marathon in her Armani suit. “It’s not,” she said. “Norma has too many enemies even within her own party. They might understand the 25th amendment better than most people but this is the first time we’ve actually had to use it and it’s not being met with any degree of friendliness. We’re theoretically 20 months from the next election. They’re not going to let her actually do anything and I wouldn’t be surprised if she gets some negative response when she starts to speak.”

“That’s because she’s a full-on bitch,” responded Wick Washerman, President Blackstone’s head speechwriter. “She’s spent her entire career kicking Congressmen in the balls and then daring them to kick back. She’s been extremely partisan and rules the House with a ‘my way or the highway’ kind of attitude. You all saw how she shut down the freshmen class coming into Congress after the last election. None of the bills they proposed ever made it out of committee. She was only elected speaker because too many of those old men were afraid of what she might do if they didn’t vote for her. She knows where bodies are buried. We can’t just write a speech and pretend she’s not bringing that reputation to the podium.”

Wilson sighed. “I get that. She’s not the most popular person in town. Whether we like it or not, though, she’s the one the Constitution has put in charge of the country for the time being. She needs to deliver some very bad news to Congress, officially, and by extension to the rest of the country who has no idea what’s going on up here. We don’t have to do much more than state the facts, but we have to do it in a way that doesn’t leave the American people feeling that their country is falling apart at the seams.”

“Can we even be clear on the facts?” Wick asked. “Do we have permission to say that an FBI agent was gunned down without any witnesses? Can we address the rumors of planes falling out of the sky? There was some pretty bad shit coming across the wires before everything went silent. What can we admit to?”

“Only what is pertinent to the country,” said Jerry Riordan, an assistant to the National Security Advisor. “There are two factors to consider. First, we don’t want to give any impression to our enemies or potential enemies the degree to which we are currently vulnerable. We know that comms are down, for example, but we don’t know that anyone else knows are comms are down. At least not yet. We can’t give anything away. Second, we don’t want to panic the public into rioting any more than they already were before things went silent. We don’t have any idea what the status is across the country but we do know that people are scared and if we leave them with the impression that things here are out of control we’re going to see a level of rioting the United States has never experienced. Say the wrong thing and a bad situation can get a lot worse in an instant.”

“So what can we say, then?” Terry asked. “I mean, this whole situation is scary. We still have an active shooter hiding somewhere here in the White House! Talk about the American people panicking, I’ve kind of been in that mode myself most of the day! I don’t like hiding under my desk every time I hear a noise outside my office!”

Wilson sat back in his chair and drummed his pen on the legal pad in front of him. “Let’s make a list,” he said quietly. “Make a list, rank the things on that list, then we only mention the top three. That’s it. Everything else can be done via a press conference or something later. The acting president doesn’t need to get into details. She needs to summarize the situation and how we got here then she needs to try to convince people that we can get through this with the same American resolve that got us through every challenge and tragedy we’ve faced before. We have to remind Congress and the American people that we are not a nation of cowards. We don’t go into hiding when the lights go out. We fight. We turn the damn lights back on.”

“So, the top of the list, President Blackstone is in the hospital after having collapsed in the residence,” Terry said, writing on her legal pad. “Second would have to be that the Vice President was assassinated, along with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and a brave Secret Service agent, leading to the Speaker taking on the role of acting President.” She paused and looked at her pad. “Can we put all that under a single point or is that too much?”

Before anyone had a chance to answer, another voice spoke up. “I have something you should add to that list.”

Heads turned and then everyone at the table quickly stood up as they realized the acting president was on the room. 

“I’m sorry, Madam President,” Wilson said. “We didn’t hear you come in.”

“That’s all right,” Norma responded. “Everyone, please have a seat. I’ll only be a second. I just want to make sure everyone knows that I intend to hand power back to President Blackstone as soon as he is able to take it.”

There was an uncomfortable silence across the room before Wick finally asked, “And what if he’s not able to resume the office, Madam President?”

“We have a scheduled election in 20 months,” Norma replied. “And I won’t be running.”

“Point of clarification, ma’am,” Terry said. “You won’t’\ be running for president, is that correct?”

Norma smiled. “I won’t be running at all,” she said. “If the past few hours have taught me anything it’s that the 25th amendment needs to be reconsidered so that we don’t accidentally end up with a president who is totally unprepared and unqualified to assume the role. I’ve only been acting president a couple of hours and in this case, I’m thinking the Constitution has made a mistake.”

“Are you saying you’re going to resign, Madam President?” Wilson asked, the concern evident on his face.

“No, I considered it but I’ve been convinced that the country doesn’t need us playing musical chairs with the Oval Office,” Norma answered. “I’ll stay until either President Blackstone returns to office or we elect someone new. Then I’m retiring from public office.”

The room went quiet for a few seconds before Wilson said, “Thank you, Madam President. I think we can work with that.”

Norma smiled and quietly left the room. Katy Lamb, her chief of staff, was waiting for her. “Do you think they bought it?” she asked.

“Hook, line, and sinker,” Norma said as she smiled.