Pt. 16: Another Tuesday In Another Coffee Shop

Thank you to those who are still reading at this point. Even when a story is good and the writing skills are excellent, keeping attention over this period of time is exceptional. I don’t dare claim that any of this is good nor that the writing quality is substantial. I appreciate you reading.

Those of you just now discovering our story, you may wish to click here to start from the beginning.

Quiet Conversations In Naked Silence

Two hours can pass quickly when one has something to do, people to talk with, perhaps a good book to read, but when there’s nothing but darkness and the sound of a single voice echoes over an unseen expanse of water into darkness, time lollygags like a rebellious preschooler denied the opportunity to play. Sitting in the breezeway in front of the apartment, next to the railing, Reesie, Carlson, Natalie, and Darrell wanted to talk, had plenty of topics they could explore, but every time one of them spoke the sound drifted eerily over the water and into the nothingness. The effect seemed somehow threatening as if talking too loudly or too often might alert an unseen enemy to their location. So, after a few initial minutes of talking, they sat there engulfed by the most complete darkness any of them had ever experienced.

Sitting in darkness is unsettling on its own, though. When one knows there are people near but can’t actually see where they are, how they’re sitting, or where their gaze might be directed, there’s a sense of being watched, perhaps scrutinized in an unfavorable manner. Feeling as though everyone is looking at you, and at the same time fearful that no one knows where you are, is an unusual form of solitude that eventually leads one to say something, anything, just to make sure everyone else is still there.

Five minutes felt more like 50 when Natalie finally cracked and had to say something. “I always thought your eyes would adjust to being able to see in the dark, no matter how dark it was,” she said. “I’ve been out here for what feels like hours, though, and still can’t see anything.”

No one was quick to respond. Instead, the other three sat and listened to the sound of Natalie’s voice, close at first, and then drifting away beyond the apartment building. Reesie finally replied, “I think there has to be at least a little bit of light, and there’s nothing out here. No streetlights, no moon, no stars, nothing. It’s kind of like being shut up in a really big box and not knowing where the walls or the top are.”

Reesie’s baritone voice echoed differently than Natalie’s alto. Her tone had a natural reverb as it bounced first off the concrete then off the water. 

“We could all be naked out here and no one would know,” Carlson said after the sound wandered away. 

“Oh god, please, no,” Reesie responded. “Please don’t tell me you’re naked.” Her voice was louder this time and her pitch raised a couple of steps.

Carlson chucked at the speed of her response and the audible difference in her voice. “If I had any vanity to me that would hurt,” he said. “Fortunately, even I don’t want to see me naked, not even in the dark.”

His comment met a hard wall of uncomfortableness that led to more silence. Talking about being naked was almost as intimate as the act itself. While no one would have challenged the fact they had all gotten a lot closer and learned more about each other over the past several hours, nudity was still a step or four too intimate for discussion. The topic felt aggressive and invasive even though there had been no overt sexuality to what Carlson had said.

Complete darkness has a way of eating away at walls, though. Internally, each of them was going through the same process. First came the immediate response of disgust and how inappropriate the topic was for this time and this place in this company. They didn’t know each other well at all, really. Just bringing up the topic felt like a drunken pick-up line. 

Then came the analysis of why Carlson had said anything in the first place. Reesie thought perhaps he was desperately trying to “relate” to the younger members of the group while Natalie considered the possibility that perhaps Carlson was one of those people who blurt out inappropriate things when feeling nervous or insecure. Darryll assumed the middle-aged man was just horny and trying to make the best out of the situation; one where he might have done the same thing were he of a similar age. Carlson was beating himself up, though, angry that he hadn’t given more thought before opening his mouth, certain that the others were all angry with him.

As the silence passed, attitudes grew softer. Quiet and uncertainty make people nervous, Natalie reasoned to herself. She had seen it in countless interviews; if she didn’t respond quickly to something that had been said, the person she was interviewing would almost always veer off nervously to a different topic. If she didn’t stop them, eventually anyone might say something they wouldn’t otherwise consider. 

Reesie remembered a number of awkward conversations she’d had with customers. Some people stressed more than others over what to say and that often led to torturous conversations where nothing came out quite the way it was intended. For that matter, people who were stressed for any reason tended to have disjointed conversations that didn’t seem to make sense. There was little question in her mind that Carlson had started the day with more stress than the rest of them. She wondered, casually for the moment, whether he might be close to a mental breakdown but didn’t feel the moment best for pursuing that line of thought. She tucked it away for later consideration.

In fact, Carlson had already gone there, unpacking everything that had happened that week, his role in the disaster that had brought them here and his inability to stop it, his family, and whether any of them would actually see their loved ones again. The weight of carrying it all was cumbersome and he wondered if perhaps his comment, which he would have never said under normal conditions, at least not among people he didn’t know, was a sign that his mind was beginning to crack under the pressure. If it was, he wondered if he was the only one.

Darryll was more sympathetic. As his internal conversation continued, he found himself wondering why they had all reacted so severely in the first place. He knew that he and Natalie had friends who frequently joked about getting naked in public. Had one of them said the same thing, they would have laughed it off. Why was it so much more offensive when Carlson said it? Could it be they were all prejudiced against seeing a middle-aged man with a certified “dad bod” nude? Were they overreacting at something that should never have been offensive in the first place? 

Those questions eventually led Darryll, to speak up. “You know, I can’t even see you guys. I know you’re here, but I don’t know what you’re doing. I could be the only one sitting here with his shirt tied around his head like a turban.”

“Darryll!” Natalie exclaimed in a hushed manner. “Why the fuck did you turn your shirt into a turban?”

“I didn’t,” he replied, laughing. “I said I could be the only one, not that I am. But that’s my whole point. When we can’t see each other, does it really matter what we’re wearing, how we’re wearing it, or whether we’re wearing anything at all? As long as we’re all keeping to ourselves in this strange, infinitely dark experience, what difference does any of it make? We may as well be completely alone.”

The group gave Darryll’s opinion a moment’s consideration before Reesie spoke up. “But we’re not alone, are we? We know we’re not alone. The only place I’m alone is inside my head and even there I’m aware that you guys are out here with me. Whether or not you can see me is irrelevant. Because I am aware of your presence, I’m going to behave and respond as though we were sitting here in full daylight. I can’t completely block out my knowledge of your immediate existence.”

Carlson felt both guilt and judgment over the course of the conversation was taking. “Look, I’m sorry I said anything, it was inappropriate. I would never get naked out here, even if I was completely by myself. I hate being naked. I apologize.”

His apology was too late, though. The topic occupied the top place in everyone’s mind because there was nothing else available to distract them that wasn’t fully depressing. As long as they were talking about nudity they weren’t talking about the desperate position they were in. While Carlson might want to switch subjects, no one else was ready to move on.

“Being naked is a cultural thing, you know, and I’m not sure this isn’t an example of how we impose our personal cultures and moralities on other people,” Natalie said. “Personally, I like walking around naked when I’m home. Ask Darryll. He has to check before inviting friends over to make sure I at least have a t-shirt on or something. I think everyone we know has seen one or both of us naked at some point in our relationship. If I don’t have a problem with me being naked why should it bother me if someone else is, especially if I can’t see them?”

Reesie shifted her position so that she was sitting in what she assumed was the direction of Natalie’s voice. “We’re still in public, though, aren’t we? Just because we can’t see each other doesn’t mean we can or should behave as we would in private. I mean, what if I wanted to masturbate? You might not be able to see me but you would most definitely hear me and there would be little question as to what I was doing. That would be patently inappropriate. Where are we going to draw the line here?”

“Aren’t you sexualizing nudity when you go there?” Darryll objected. “I think that’s the difference right there. There isn’t anything patently sexual about simply hanging out naked. Natalie’s right, if there’s no one else here, she’s naked all the time and while she catches me smiling at her when she is, it’s not so much because I’m turned on by her nudity as I think she’s most attractive when there’s nothing hiding her natural shape. There’s nothing sexual to that. I can watch her naked all day and not have a problem feeling sexually aroused.”

Carlson was feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the conversation. “You all might feel comfortable running around naked and appreciating each other’s ‘natural shape,’ but you all are young and beautiful. You have bodies that are easy to appreciate. I don’t. I’m worn. I’m 30 pounds overweight. My skin is pasty with patches of hair in places that make absolutely no sense. I avoid looking at the mirror in the bathroom because I know I’m not going to like what I see there. If I don’t like me naked, I’m not going to assume anyone else is going to want to see me naked, sexual or otherwise. For me, it’s a level of grossness that comes with age and too much beer.”

“What about your wife?” Reesie asked. “Doesn’t she like seeing you naked?”

Carlson laughed more loudly than he had intended and abruptly stopped as he heard the sound echoing. Only when it was quiet again did he say anything. “I can’t even remember the last time my wife and I saw each other naked. We stopped playing that game years ago after our third child was born.”

This was territory the other three had not yet considered, that they might one day reach a point in their lives where nudity might stop being enjoyable. 

“You mean you stopped having sex?” Natalie asked.

“No, we don’t have it as often as we once did but if we manage to find an evening where one or the other of us isn’t completely exhausted when we fall into bed then yeah, we’ll take a run at it. We still enjoy each other, it’s just not the priority it once was and teenagers in the house for either of us to leave our bedroom short of being fully dressed means being ready to be called gross and disgusting when the kids see us. They don’t even like it when I wear shorts at the beach.”

A random piece of metal banged into something in the distance, making a noise that startled them all. They looked out into the darkness just in case they might see something, anything, that would hint at another lifeform. For a moment, it seemed as though the conversation about nudity was finished. It wasn’t.

As the quiet once again became uncomfortable, Reesie picked the topic back up. “I hadn’t thought about the whole teenager thing,” she said. “I don’t typically walk around the house naked because this butt needs a touch of support, but topless? Yeah, the moment I hit the door. I guess there’s a point at which Ravi’s not going to want to see that any more.”

“No one likes seeing their parents naked,” Darryll added. “Just the thought is enough to make me cringe.”

Natalie stood up to stretch her legs. “Still, it’s a culture we create for ourselves, isn’t it? What if our parents never stopped being naked at home? What if we didn’t give in to the body-shaming we impose on ourselves at whatever age?” She paused for a moment and then added. “You know, there’s a colony of nudists about 40 minutes East of town. I’ve been out there for stories a couple of times. Pretty much everyone out there is over 50. The first time I went I very quickly had to get over their less-than-perfect bodies.”

“Did they make you get naked, too?” Darryll asked, feeling a twinge of jealousy he would try hard to suppress.

“Not at all,” Natalie answered. “They were very sweet. They let me decide what I was comfortable with. The first time I stayed completely dressed. When I went back for a follow-up, I took a robe and wore that because I had seen some of them doing the same. Where it was air-conditioned it tended to be a bit chilly. But they were all nice, most of them extremely intelligent, wonderful to talk to. They have created a culture there where sexuality has nothing to do with your body. That allows them to focus on who a person really is. Did you know their divorce rate is less than 20 percent? It’s … interesting.”

“I still don’t think I could do it,” Carlson said. “Seeing naked bodies my age is like that traffic accident you come across—you can’t wait to get past it but you can’t help rubbernecking either, and you tell all your friends how horrible it was.”

“Maybe my culture needs some updating,” Reesie said. “Not that you all are ever going to see me naked. I’ve got too much awesomeness under these clothes. Unleashing it on the general public might cause a riot.”

They laughed for a short minute and then let the sound fade into the somber distance. They had talked enough for the moment. Silence was no longer the oppressor. They could sit and think and not worry that they were being rude for not interacting with everyone. It was late. They were all tired.

After several minutes, Darryll asked, “Hey, Natalie, are you asleep?”

“No, why?” she responded.

“Just hearing a change in your breathing, longer, deeper breaths than usual,” he said. “Everything is more noticeable out here.”

She giggled. “Not everything,” Natalie said. “I’m naked.”

The View From The Other Side

On the opposite side of the apartment, Barry and Amanda stood watch on opposite sides of a support pillar that looked like it was made of brick but was actually a veneer-covered steel girder. The view at the moment wasn’t any different than what Carlson, Reesie, Natalie, and Darryll were seeing on the other side. There was absolute. There was nothing left on this side of the building to even reflect moonlight had there been moonlight. 

“You know, I was on a cruise once where it rained almost every night. No moon or stars, just like tonight. I thought looking out over the ocean then was spooky, but this is worse. At least there we had the glow from all the ship’s lights. Here, we’ve got nothing,” Amanda said.

Barry shrugged and shuffled down the balcony a bit. “I live in a basement. The view is about the same every night when I turn out the lights,” he said. “What feels different is the absence of sound. There’s no fridge running, no air conditioning, no playlists on the headphones. All we have is water, and now that we don’t have as much debris running into the building, even that sounds like a white noise machine.”

Amanda listened and realized how accurate Barry’s assessment was. “I used a white noise generator when the kids were babies,” she said. “Elise especially was a fussy baby. There were times when the noise generator was the only thing that would calm her down.” She paused for a moment and listened some more. “If we weren’t flooded and stranded, it would almost be relaxing out here.”

“I always imagined this was sort of what camping was like,” Barry said. “The gurgling of a small stream and you sleep out under the stars.”

Amanda caught the cue quickly and wasted no time following up. “You’ve never been camping?” she asked. “I thought that was just a normal part of growing up in the Midwest.”

Barry walked back toward the pillar. The echoing sound of their voices bothered his ears. He hoped that moving closer to where Amanda stood might help mitigate the effect. “I didn’t exactly have a ‘normal’ childhood,” he told her. “No one ever wants to take the fat kid.”

“Your parents didn’t take you?” Amanda pushed, knowing that she could well be pushing Barry into emotional territory that was none of her business.

Years of social isolation had Barry in the mood to talk, though, and Amanda was something of a captive audience, and a sympathetic one at that. “My dad died in a car wreck when I was three,” Barry answered. “Mom had little choice but to work all the time, especially since I was eating everything in sight and constantly outgrowing my clothes. Raising me was tough on her. There were no trips to the beach, no amusement parks, nothing like that. The only time I ever got to go to the zoo was on school field trips.”

“I’m sorry,” Amanda replied. “That’s just sad. Everyone needs a chance to explore, see different places, experience different things.” She paused for a moment. When Barry didn’t say anything she continued. “My parents took us everywhere. Summers were for travel. Even when Daddy had to work, Mom would still load us all up in the van and we’d go hiking in the mountains or visit a dairy farm. If we didn’t visit King’s Island at least three times a summer we considered that a travesty. Our summer break was ruined.”

Barry allowed more silence to pass, not because he didn’t have anything to say, but because his story was such a dramatic contrast from Amanda’s that it felt like asking for pity that he didn’t want. He stood against the pillar looking into the nothingness, waiting until the quiet became excruciatingly uncomfortable before saying anything. “I’ve never been to King’s Island,” he admitted. “Never asked my Mom to go, honestly. I was afraid that they’d tell me I was too fat to ride the rides, or worse yet, they wouldn’t say anything and I’d get stuck. Life was embarrassing enough, especially during those stupid teen years when everyone’s judging you anyway. I suppose it could have been fun, maybe, if Mom had really been into it, but she didn’t seem to be. All she did was work.”

Amanda sensed correctly that no matter what they talked about, Barry didn’t have many positive experiences. Life had placed him at a disadvantage almost from the beginning and failed to provide him too many breaks. Any direction she took the conversation was only going to highlight the differences between her life and his.

As they stood in the silence, they could hear the voices of the quartet on the other side of the building—not well enough to actually eavesdrop on the conversation, but enough that they were able to pick up random words. The word that kept popping up was “naked,” void of any context, tossed curiously into a word salad that included “turban,” “divorce,” and “dark.” While neither Amanda nor Barry could make out the topic of conversation, they were both silently jealous that whatever they were talking about seemed to be fun. 

One thing about silence is that it takes little effort to maintain. Both Barry and Amanda thought of things they could have said but everything felt intrusive, or shallow, or self-serving. What Amanda really wanted to talk about was her kids. She worried about them, whether they were safe. She realized that she worried about the children much more than she worried about Bruce, her husband. Instantly, she felt a pang of guilt for not having worried about him as much. He was an adult, though. He stood a much better chance of being able to take care of himself. The children, on the other hand, were at the mercy of their caretakers. Devin would be safe enough, she thought, as long as the house stayed out of the path of tornadoes. Elise and Alexander should have been well-protected at school, but Amanda worried about what might happen if the kids panicked.

Barry was more concerned with what he was going to do once their current situation was over. He was certain the basement he rented was completely flooded. All his computers and files he hadn’t yet backed up would be lost. All of his notes, his books, his music collection, and pretty much everything that meant anything would be gone. He kept trying to convince himself that he didn’t care, that this would be an opportunity to start over, try something new if he wanted. What worried him, though, was that there might not be any place left that was capable of employing him. The landscape around them was completely barren. There were no tall office buildings. Even if there had been light, there was nothing n this side of the building for them to see. Everything was gone, including any means of employment.

They each stood there with their thoughts, momentarily disengaged from everything and everyone else around them. The complete blackness deposited in front of them made it easy to become wholly enveloped in one’s thoughts and imagination. Reality had been destroyed, making it easy to give in creating a world that was what one wanted it to be. Old rules no longer applied. Problems that had previously plagued society could be fixed. People would be nicer, more accepting, more generous. Politicians would be more responsible, less corrupt. 

Looking out into nothing makes dreaming come easy, even for someone like Barry who tended to have a rather negative view of the world. He could look out past the balcony and there was nothing there to remind him of his past failures, of the myriad times he’d been disappointed by people he thought he could trust or the countless times the world had flat-out rejected him because of his size. To some degree, the darkness represented a blank canvas, a complete starting over. The only problem was knowing what they had to start with.

Amanda considered what it might be like to start over without Bruce, without her parents, without the abundant contact list that filled her smartphone. She wondered if the money would still be there or if it would even matter. Perhaps bank accounts would be less important now, people would be valued based on what they contributed to society rather than the size of a number in a digital ledger that no one ever saw. She laughed at the thought, which startled Barry, for which she immediately apologized but didn’t explain. She reminded herself that for all the opportunities society had to restart itself over the centuries, it had always been those who accumulated wealth that held the power. No one remembered the poor person once they were gone. To leave an enduring mark on the world, one either had to slaughter millions or leave an inhumanely large bank account. Bruce or not, children or not, Amanda considered this her chance to dominate. She just wasn’t sure exactly how.

Standing there, lost in their own thoughts, afraid to tell the other what they were thinking, neither Barry nor Amanda was doing any actual guarding of the apartment. There wasn’t anything out there. Nothing was going to be out there until there was light enough to see. 

A breeze came and went with the sounds of distant thunder. Normally, the smell of approaching rain was comforting, perhaps even relaxing for a lot of people. At the moment, though, the thought of more rain was terrifying. Everyone in the apartment quietly hoped that with daylight they would find that waters had receded and perhaps they could begin the process of leaving the apartment and trying to piece their lives back together. More rain meant that wasn’t likely to happen; they would continue to be stranded inside this admittedly comfortable island that both protected and imprisoned them.

Barry did not catch the different fragrance at first, the one that was decidedly not that of rain. Amanda didn’t pick up the change at all. Even when he did, Barry sniffed hard a couple of times and decided that the faint bitter almond smell probably wasn’t something to worry about. Most likely, the water had upended a commercial garbage container, spilling food waste into the water. They had to expect odd smells like that. In fact, Barry told himself, they would probably get a lot worse as everything and everyone caught by the floodwaters began to rot. 

The smell didn’t go away, though. As it grew stronger, Barry became more concerned. He recognized that smell as something he had encountered during his post-graduate studies. Someone has miswired a motherboard causing the entire computer to catch fire. No one thought it was a big deal and after the fire was quickly put out, the student responsible was teased by everyone else in the room. When fire officials arrived, having been summoned by the building’s alarm system, they had evacuated the entire building, opened all the windows, and flushed the entire air transfer system. Then, those who had been closest to the fire started getting sick, vomiting and feeling light-headed. A firefighter explained that the burning chemicals in the computer had created a smoke full of hydrogen cyanide, a gas 2,000 times more deadly than carbon monoxide. She explained that hundreds of household items created the poison when burned. While all the students recovered from that episode quickly enough, the experience was one Barry would never forget.

He waited even now. They were outside, not stuck in a stuffy lab with a limited ventilation system. The wind would sufficiently dissipate the poison and carry it away. They didn’t need to be worried. Only after several moments did Barry realize that the increasing strength of the smell probably meant that someone not too terribly far away was burning something, and the more they burned, the more dangerous the air-borne poison became. 

“Smell that?” Barry finally asked.

Amanda sniffed the air hard. “Yeah, reminds me of spilled trash or something. What do you suppose it is?”

Barry inhaled deeply again to make sure and he coughed on the fumes. “Someone’s burning something relatively close by,” he said. “I think maybe we should go inside and check on the guys out front.”

Amanda leaned out over the railing, her line of sight hampered by her lack of height. She couldn’t see anything burning, but now that she was aware of it, the scent was unavoidable. “You think it’s a problem?”

“Could be,” Barry answered. “Catch that bitter almond smell in there?”

Amanda took another sniff. “Just barely,” she said, not wanting to admit that she really didn’t smell anything that she could relate to almonds.

Her hesitancy was enough to give Barry reason to doubt himself. He didn’t want to be guilty of raising a false alarm, possibly getting everyone upset over a smell that turned out to be nothing more than garbage. He could feel himself becoming light-headed, though. To not say anything could be worse than any possible ridicule. “I think we need to go inside. I’m pretty sure that’s poison we’re smelling.”

Amanda shrugged and turned toward the sliding glass door. “Sure, I guess that makes sense if that’s what you think you’re smelling.”

Barry wasn’t sure until Amanda opened the glass door and almost ran into Amber’s abdomen. “Whoah, I’m sorry, I wasn’t expecting anyone,” Amanda said, feeling her face flush with embarrassment. 

“That’s okay,” Amber said, laughing. “I was just coming to say you guys might want to come on in. I’m picking up a faint smell of hydrogen cyanide. Probably nothing, but better to be safe.”

Amanda looked back at Barry. “You were right,” she said. “See? You should trust your instincts a little more.”

Amber opened the door wider so that Barry wouldn’t have to turn sideways to get through. As she did, the smell quickly filled the living room. There were coughs and comments of “Ew, what’s that smell?” from across the room.

Sitting over the on the couch, having been all but forgotten, Hannah began to cry. “Please, don’t let that smell in here, I beg you,” she said.

Gloria immediately rushed over to her grandmother. “Gamma, what’s wrong?”

The older woman curled up into a ball as best she could and buried her face in her lap.

“Gamma, are you okay?” Gloria asked again. “What’s wrong?”

“That smell …” Hannah started. 

Gloria looked over at Toma for support, not sure what was going on. “Yeah, it’s pretty rotten, but it’s okay, it will go away.”

Hannah shook her head. “No, that is the smell of death. That is the smell of the poison that killed my parents.” She cried harder and buried her face in her lap again.

Gloria was completely confused. Toma walked over and put her arms around the older woman but no comforting words were available. They were not aware of what had killed Hannah’s parents. They had not yet heard the stories.

Amber rushed to the front door and warned the others. “You guys should probably come back in. I think we have a problem.”

Natalie, Darryll, Reesie, and Carlson came back inside, shutting the door behind them, no one mentioning for the moment that Natalie was indeed completely naked. “What’s up,” Darryll asked. “Is this about that funky smell?”

Amber motioned for everyone to gather tightly into the living room. “That smell is a problem,” she explained. “Something’s caught fire that’s emitting hydrogen cyanide. That’s especially upsetting for Hannah because that’s the gas used in the death chambers in Germany and Poland. We need to take some serious precautions.”

You’re Not Ready For This

Severe situations call for severe actions. With communication lines down, Admiral Tennant and Roger Raddison had both left the SitRoom, leaving President Watkins to talk rather uncomfortably with Rick Angel. He hadn’t said much while Grace and Roger had gone all-in on the severity of the situation and Norma wasn’t entirely convinced that he agreed with their views. Still, he had been part of the conversations with President Blackstone. This was her chance to find out what had been the reasoning for some of Rudy’s seemingly insane decisions.

“I’m sorry if all this mess puts you in an uncomfortable situation, Rick,” Norma began. “It’s going to take a few days, maybe a few weeks, to get all this mess sorted out. This isn’t going to be the typical transition between administrations.”

Rick smiled in the manner to which politicians are accustomed, the kind big enough that true thoughts and intentions hide well behind the facade of presumed friendliness. “I don’t think anyone expects any portion of this transition to be typical, especially since they’re not letting you move into the residence.”

“Yes, that’s going to make things especially cumbersome,” Norma replied, leaning back in her chair. “The order to leave everything in the White House exactly the way it is until Justice has had a chance to go through everything in search of evidence is a complete pain in the ass. I get it. I understand why it has to happen, but it’s like chopping off our left foot before we even get out of the starting block. I don’t know where we were on foreign relations, I don’t know what the White House had planned for immigration and health care, and the whole communications test that started this whole mess has me baffled. I’m sure all those papers and briefings are there, probably just outside the Oval Office, but I can’t touch them until Justice clears everything. How am I supposed to deal with everything?”

“Call in all the members of the previous cabinet for starters,” Rick answered. “They’ll be able to give you new briefs on their major points of activity. They’ll like that because it will give them a chance to sell their programs to you. I don’t think any of them would turn you down if you asked them to stay. Not that you want all of them to stay. I know you’ve had some issues with the Secretary of State in the past.”

Norma smiled and nodded. Secretary of State Quentin Kaiser had a very nationalistic view of the world and actively railed against globalization. That put him at odds with the former Speaker on topics such as sanctions and diplomatic cooperation. “Mr. Kaiser will not be asked to continue in his current position,” she said. “If everything Grace said is true, it sounds as though we may be back to square one with all our diplomatic relations. The world has lost a large part of its population and countries that were threats this morning may not be so daunting now. I’ll be looking for someone who can take advantage of the opportunity to forge new relations.”

There was a sharp knock on the SitRoom door and Rick walked over to check on who it was. Turning back to President Watkins, he announced, “Ms. Lamb and Vice President Tucker would like to see you, ma’am.”

“Good!” Norma responded. “Maybe they can help me figure out what to do next.”

“Sounds like a good time for me to leave,” Rick said. “Would you like me to request the Cabinet be convened?”

Norma thought for a moment then remembered the severity of the weather. “Yes, but only after this storm passes. Everyone should shelter where they are for the moment. No more running between buildings.”

Rick nodded and left the room as Will and Katy entered. Norma motioned for them both to take seats at the large conference table. “I don’t think there’s necessarily a protocol as to who sits where just yet,” she said. “But have a seat, we’ve got a lot to figure out.”

“Have you been able to get any kind of update as to what’s going on outside the Beltway?” Will asked as he sat down. 

“Admiral Tennant, who I’m appointing as Chair of the Joint Chiefs whether anyone likes it or not, was here and so was Director Raddison,” Norma answered. “The situation isn’t looking good. We’ve lost entire cities. Small towns have been wiped off the map. We’re looking at a death toll in the millions, unlike anything we’ve ever seen. I don’t have a clue how to even begin responding to a disaster of this magnitude.”

“And it’s not over,” Katy said, sitting on the opposite side of the table from the Vice President. While she knew Norma trusted him, Katy didn’t know him well and had an inherent dislike for attorneys having previously been married to two and finding them both pretentiously unbearable. She didn’t expect Will to be any different. “What’s coming up the East Coast now is going to rip apart everything in their paths from Charlotte northward,” she continued. “FEMA doesn’t have the resources to even deal with an individual city that’s experienced this level of devastation and loss. We’re going to need something bigger, something designed to take a longer-term approach to rebuild the country.”

Norma sat forward, intertwining her hands as she leaned on the table. “I get that, but we can’t solve the problem out there until we’ve built a cohesive infrastructure in here. I need a Cabinet. I need special-area advisors. I need people around me who know what the fuck they’re doing and how to explain it in a way that’s going to make sense to the American people. The existing policy of not telling voters what’s going on until it’s too late for anyone to do anything about it is over. We have to restore some trust or we’re going to lose more than we already have.”

Katy looked around the room. “Who’s supposed to make the coffee down here? I’m going to have a rough time thinking if we don’t have some coffee?”

“The kitchen handles it,” Will said, his voice sounding particularly exasperated. “Without phone service, they don’t know that we’re down here. This is why we have interns. Send one of them with a message to the kitchen. They’ll take care of the rest. “

Katy quickly went to the door and summoned one of the junior aides that had come with them from the Capitol. She gave her the message and then shut the door back firmly. “Most of our Congressional staff is here, Madam President,” she said as she turned and sat back down at the table. “I don’t see any reason why we can’t keep most if not all of them. We just need to assign positions.”

Norma nodded. She had found a legal pad and had started making a list of Cabinet positions. “I’m fine with that. Go ahead and make assignments as you see fit, starting with yourself as Chief of Staff. There’s an old adage about not changing horses midstream. We’re only here for a year and a half. I see no reason to not stick with the team we have.”

“Thank you, Madam President,” Katy said, trying hard to hold back the urge to scream with joy. She had to maintain decorum for now. She could celebrate and work on getting Norma to run for the office later.

“Will, what do you think is most important at the moment? HomeSec, Interior, Treasury, and State?” Norma said, continuing her train of thought as though Katy hadn’t said anything. She wanted to keep a tight focus to make sure nothing was missed or left out. What they did in the privacy of the Situation Room would soon enough become public and would have to face tremendous scrutiny.

The Vice President had grabbed a legal pad as well and was making a list similar to the President’s. “I’d toss Agriculture and Transportation in there, too,” he said. “From what I’m hearing, we’ve lost somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 percent of our food production capabilities. The Midwest is so severely flooded that they may not be able to plant anything new until next Spring. Fruit orchards in California and Florida are completely decimated. Those take years to re-cultivate. We’re going to need to funnel a lot of money that direction or the people that are left are going to starve.”

“What are our important options?” Katy asked, trying to reinsert herself into the conversation. “If we can’t produce the food for ourselves, I assume we look to South American farmers like we always have. Can that fill the gap for what we can’t produce?”

“Trade policies are a joint effort between State and Commerce, with Agriculture having a dominant voice in this case,” Norma said. “Typically, there’s a lot of pushback from Ag on food imports. They lower domestic prices and make it difficult for US farmers to compete. Our enemy of the moment here is that we don’t know that they’re faring any better than we are. Admiral Tennant seemed to indicate that this disaster is global and if that’s the case world-wide food production may not be sufficient. Everyone’s going to take care of their own country before even talking about exports.”

“You need someone at Ag who understands large-scale farm production and how to get things up and running quickly,” Will said as he drummed his pen on the legal pad. “Who’s the head of that farm group that’s always giving Blackstone hell? Mulvaney? Mitchell?”

“Phil Morrison,” Katy said. “He’s head of the United Farmers Co-op. He has some interesting ideas for using renewables to increase farm production.”

Norma gave Katy a surprised look. “Since when did the city girl learn so much about farming?”

“Since Mr. Morrison dropped off a new legislative opinion paper this morning,” Katy said. “I had just enough time to skim it before the day went to shit.”

Will looked up. “May I say something about protocol before we go any further?” he asked. The President nodded and he continued. “You’re in the White House now, not your Congressional offices. Once the power is back online and everything’s running the way it’s supposed to, all the conversations, including the ones in here, are recorded, most of them videotaped, and subject to the Presidential Papers Act. That means they’re all archived and available for study and scrutiny once you leave office. I know previous Presidents like Johnson and Nixon have been known for salty language, but ma’am, with all due respect, you’re the first female President this country has had. You don’t have room to make any errors, not even when it comes to the language you use in private.”

Norma’s face flushed with the rebuke. She knew Will’s criticism was unquestionably correct. She also knew how loosely she had policed her Congressional staff. Getting everyone to wash out their mouths was a challenge she didn’t have time to worry about. “Katy, add that to your list,” she said. “Make sure the entire staff knows to keep their language appropriate for grandmothers.”

Katy nodded. There didn’t seem to be another legal pad so she was scribbling notes on a stack of napkins left on the otherwise-empty coffee station.

“So, we put Morrison in at Ag,” Norma continued.

“Should we make it acting, so he can start immediately?” Katy asked. She knew the side-step well as President Blackstone had used the maneuver frequently to avoid the challenges of a Senate confirmation hearing. An “acting” department head wasn’t subject to the same rules and limitations as a fully-vetted Secretary.

“It makes sense under the circumstances,” Will agreed. “Once things have calmed down a bit then we can go through the formal nomination process.”

There was a knock at the door and Katy instinctively stood up to answer it. “Go … sh I hope this is coffee,” she said, catching herself before breaking the new rule.

When she opened the door, however, Roger Raddison was standing there and he didn’t look happy. “I need to brief the President,” he said. Katy stepped out of the way and let him in. Raddison took note of Will’s presence and nodded politely in his direction.

“That’s not a face that typically accompanies good news, Mr. Raddison,” Norma said. “Tell me what I don’t want to hear.”

Roger swallowed hard. “A couple of things, Madam President. First, and for the time being, most importantly, the storm is here and even though we can’t feel it down here, it’s stronger than anyone expected. We have winds in excess of 100 miles per hour and the rain is falling at the rate of a half-inch per minute. I don’t need to remind you that the District of Columbia is built on a swamp. We’re secure here, but it’s not safe for me to send messages to anyone else.” He paused and took a deep breath. “Ma’am, the Capitol basement is not secure against this level of flooding. Worse, we were getting reports before the storm hit that several people, including a couple of Senators, were attempting to leave the Capitol. There is almost no chance that any of them made it. We have multiple tornadoes bearing down on us and, quite honestly, given the way the buildings here are separated from each other, the effect is going to be worse than a nuclear explosion.”

Norma could feel the blood draining from her face. The roads between buildings had been busy all day as Congressional and other office aides ran messages back and forth between buildings. She also knew that many of her former colleagues had refused to go to the basement. “What can we do?” she asked.

Roger shook his head. “Duck, ma’am. We’ll keep this location as secure as we possibly can, but we’re at the mercy of the Almighty now.”

Salt In The Wound

When a couple of Lieutenants first delivered the make-shift wheelchair to Perry, he had to laugh a bit. In the back were two spare tires rescued from troop carriers balanced in front by the dual nosewheel assembly from an old F-14 fighter. The seat was the stripped-down pilot’s chair from the same aircraft, minus all the electronics, held in place with a set of industrial springs and to keep the ride balanced and smooth. In place of a driver’s wheel was a video game controller that operated a small battery-powered engine just strong enough to move the surprisingly lightweight contraption across the concrete floor. When the Marines lifted Perry into the seat, he was still three feet off the floor, high enough to see everything going on around him. They had even made sure to provide a full set of rearview mirrors so he could see what was going on next to him without having to turn his head.

Watching Perry cruise around the hanger in the wheelchair was enough to lift the spirits of everyone in the hangar. His first stop was to visit the injured analysts and talk with them. Most were still in shock by the whole ordeal. A few were in critical condition and were unable to communicate back to Perry. Several told similar stories, though, of how they’d seen unusual code in the system the last few days before the test. The code would appear, disappear, and new code would take its place before anyone on any of the teams had time to check it. None of the new code followed naming protocols and all three surviving members of the Green Team said they had asked to have the test delayed because of all the last-minute changes that had been made. 

Perry assured all of them that they would not be blamed for the failed test, explained that there had been at least one mole in the group, that the mole was now in custody, and that he would be prosecuted and held responsible for all the deaths caused by the failed test. He held their hands. He told them their families were all safe, a lie he assumed he would not have to back up later. He did his best to give them some sense of hope despite knowing that the worst was likely yet to come.

The rain never let up, even for a second. The continual beating on the corrugated tin roof of the hangar was loud enough that many of the Marines were wearing ear protection and using sign language to communicate. When the distinct ping of hail began to hit the roof, Major Davis’s reaction was prompt. Barricades were moved in front of the large doors while everything and everyone else was moved toward the center of the space. 

Everything, that is, except for the modified container serving as a jail cell for Tom. The container was anchored to the concrete floor and he was chained to the container. The guards took position inside similarly secured containers positioned so they could at least see the make-shift Brigg should the storm become strong enough to blow it away. They knew that were that to happen, anyone inside would not survive the fall back to earth.

“Triple-check those tie-downs,” Major Davis barked as he circled the accumulated survivors. “Keep everything on as low a profile as possible!”

When the Major finally caught up with Perry he yelled up, “You might be safer hiding under that thing for a few minutes, Colonel!” He motioned to a couple of nearby Marines who came and helped Perry get out of the seat and positioned under the wheelchair. They then secured the vehicle to locking mechanisms embedded in the floor. All Perry could do was watch.

After checking on a few remaining locations, Major Davis returned with a couple of harnesses, bucking both Perry and himself to straps secured to the floor. “We’ll at least make an attempt to not lose any more command personnel,” he said with a wry grin.

By this point, however, Perry was beginning to doubt whether any of them would survive. All the generators had been shut down to preserve fuel and keep them secure. In the dark, he could feel the heavy wind as it started pushing its way through the massive doors. At times, it felt as though he could feel the inhale and exhale of the entire hangar breathing.

A high, North-facing window broke first. A rush of air swirled through the hangar as the pressure inside the building balanced with that outside. Small debris, scraps of paper left lying around, a discarded bandage, a plastic shopping bag, were suddenly airborne, swirling in what seemed like aimless circles before they made their way up and toward the window. The air felt wet even though very little rain was actually coming through the broken window. Steel girders groaned under the strain of the wind like an old man struggling to pull himself to safety. Rivets on the tin roof began to pop and the panels banged loudly against each other.

The hail grew larger, some pieces as large as softballs. More North-facing windows broke and now anyone on the North side of the hangar not only began feeling the rain but the tug of the wind attempting to pull them away from their secured positions. For now, the strain was small, rather like a toddler trying to get its parent’s attention, increasingly frustrated at being ignored. Still, for many who had never experienced severe weather directly before, each new development brought with it another layer of fear, fear that didn’t replace what they already felt but stacked precipitously on top like an uneven tower of blocks. Noise inside the hangar reached a level louder than if a squadron of jets had all fired their engines at once.

Then, with a suddenness that was sinister, all the noise stopped. No hail. No rain. Not even a whisper of wind. Everyone inside the hangar listened carefully for a moment before they began to cheer, thinking they had made it through the worst of the storm.

“Stop! Marines, silent protocols!” Major Davis barked. “Can the chatter and stay strapped in your harnesses! That’s a direct order!”

The hangar went quiet and Perry leaned over whispered to the veteran officer, “How can you tell it’s not over when you can’t see anything?”

“Because this is what tornadoes do,” Davis said. “They consume all the energy immediately around them, creating an effective warning gap between the rest of the storm and the funnel. A majority of deaths from tornadoes come because people left their place of shelter during this gap and got caught outside when the funnel hit.”

Perry nodded and grabbed hold of his harness. He wasn’t sure what to expect next but he could tell from the concerned expression on the Major’s face that it was likely to be trouble.

“Listen,” Davis instructed. “Let me know when you hear it.”

Perry had heard the stories. Natural disasters have a way of telegraphing their arrival. Animals feel earthquakes before humans and take cover. Unusually low tides occur just before a tsunami. The problem is there’s not enough warning to get out of their way. For tornadoes, the sound is most commonly compared to that of an approaching freight train. Perry had always held a mild curiosity as to whether those tales were true. He was moderately excited to find out but still wished that he wasn’t so close to the center of the action for yet another time today.

He felt it before he heard it. The pressure dropped, a feeling that reminded Perry of being in an airplane rapidly descending from a high altitude. His ears popped more times than he could count and for a short moment, Perry wondered if his eardrums might explode. Breathing became difficult for a second as though trying to catch his breath after a long run.

When he did hear it, though, Perry felt a chill run through his body like nothing he’d ever known. Hearing survivors talk about the sound of an approaching train was one thing, actually experiencing it was more terrifying than he would have ever experienced. The hangar was completely dark now and every instinct in Perry’s body said that the needed to run, get away from this train that was approaching, but he couldn’t. Even if he hadn’t been strapped to the concrete floor, his legs weren’t working. Not that he didn’t try to get them to move. If sheer mental power had been enough to move his legs, he would have been up and dragging the concrete with him. Instead, all he could do was wait as that freight train barreled toward them.

No one inside the hangar could have known that the twister approaching them was over two miles wide with internal winds in excess of 300 miles an hour and a land speed of more than 80 miles per hour. Nothing, no matter how solidly built, was surviving an encounter with this beast. As massive volumes of air rushed upward through the circular rotating tunnel, the noise level exceeded that of a squadron of jet engines at full thrust. Explosions were occurring inside the funnel but the ambient noise level was so severe that no one in the hangar could tell the difference. Strings of power lines were knotted into giant balls of wire as the wood poles to which they were attached were turned into millions of toothpick-sized splinters. Concrete-reinforced buildings disintegrated, leaving nothing but rectangular-shaped craters. Even foundations were being pulled from the ground.

First, the roof peeled off the hangar, just as Major Davis had said it would, and the walls left quickly after it, leaving everything and everyone in the hangar exposed to the full brunt of the rotating winds. Perry could feel the upward force of air pulling at him and at times it seemed as though they might rip him apart through his harness. He could feel things hitting him but couldn’t identify what they were. Everything was wet but it was like being totally immersed, covered by a blanket of rain that was trying to protect him from everything else flying through the air. Perry did his best to pull his body toward his legs, trying to keep the updraft from ripping him apart.

Across the hangar, Tom’s experience inside the container/jail was equally frightening. He was all alone and unable to escape. His screams of, “Hey, isn’t anyone going to protect me?” went unheard above the din of the storm. In the complete darkness, he lost all sense of where he was, what direction he was facing, and what was going on around him. He felt the pressure drop and grabbed at his ears. He heard the metal around him creak and groan, the concrete under him beginning to shake. The inside of the container magnified the noise to the point Tom was sure his ears were bleeding.

When the roof ripped away, it took the back wall of Tom’s container with it. The container moved across the concrete until it was by the lock chains. This seemed to anger the storm. The remaining walls were ripped away and the floor was lifted off the ground. Tom was unable to breathe and by the time the storm ripped his shackles out of the bottom of the container his lungs had already collapsed. The next few seconds were torture as Tom’s body begin spinning like a top. Pieces of his clothing were ripped away as he ascended higher into the funnel. He had no idea how high he was. He didn’t care. In the final seconds, he wondered if this was his reward for having saved the country.

Tom felt nothing when the wind removed his head and spine from his body. Arms and legs went in separate directions, each piece eventually falling to the ground, covered in mud, pierced thousands of times with debris. He was dead before any of that happened. Not that anyone would ever care. So many people were caught in the storm that when the pieces were eventually recovered and placed together, they were buried and burned. Individual identities were irrelevant at that point. There were too few people left to mourn, even fewer people left who cared.

As quickly as the tornado came, it left. On the backside, an eery calm settled over the torn Virginia landscape. In the quiet, Perry began to feel the pain of hundreds of pieces of wood and metal using him as a human pin cushion. Some were smaller than a quarter of an inch. Others were over a foot long. All of them hurt.

Perry laid there and reached out toward where Major Davis should have been but felt nothing. The concrete had been ripped away. He realized that the harness he was wearing was loose and dangling. Only one of the straps remained locked to what used to be the floor.

“Hello!” he screamed as loud as he could. He heard his voice echo but got no response in return. He knew that didn’t mean no one was out there, anyone who had just been through what he had been through would be in shock and might not be able to hear him screaming. He knew, at an intellectual level, that people could have been picked up and dropped and still survived. Perry also knew that shock victims often feel isolated in that moment of terror. 

What Perry felt right now, though, was an all-encompassing feeling of dread, that he was stuck here in the middle of this Virginia field, a place where fewer than a thousand people even knew existed, unable to walk, with multiple wounds, and no one to help. Everyone was gone. The people with whom he had spent the last fifteen years of his life hadn’t just gotten up and left, they were dead. All of them were dead. For most, the pieces of their bodies would never be identified. Their names would never be on a plaque. There would be no annual memorial in their honor because the total death toll across the nation over the course of this one Tuesday would be over 200 million people. 

Perry had no choice but to lie there, wounded, in the dark, waiting.

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