Pt. 17: Another Tuesday At Another Coffee Shop

Ed. Note: We’re probably two, three weeks tops, from being done with our story! This has me wondering what to do next. Should I start another story or go with some solo articles for a while? Let me know what you think in the comments!

Just now joining us? Click here if you want to start at the very beginning.

Falling Apart At The Seams

“I hardly smell anything at all,” Carlson said.

“Same here,” added Adam.

Miranda sniffed hard. “It’s like the person next door burned their dinner or something.”

Amber shook her head. “See Hannah’s reaction? She’s crying for a reason. Hydrogen Cyanide is a killer. It works quickly and without gas masks, we’re all vulnerable. We need to quickly find a way to protect ourselves until the source is depleted.”

A new wave of panic swept across the group that, by now, was beginning to experience a sense of adrenaline fatigue. The day had been a continual chain of one disaster after another to the point that some in the group were running out of the energy necessary to fight off this newest threat. Everyone talked at once expressing their own frustration at having to deal with yet another threat to their lives, not realizing that in doing so they were potentially ingesting more of the poison gas.

Finally, Amber whistled loudly to get everyone to be quiet. “Hold on here,” she said loudly. “Look, I know this has been a trying day and I get that we’re all tired but given how few people seem to be left alive in this town I think we have an obligation to at least try to survive!” She watched the eye rolls and heard the disgruntled murmurs. “We have options we can try to at least minimize the effects of the gas. We need t-shirts and either lemon juice or some kind of vinegar, preferably not straight white because that’s a bit harsh as well.”

Darryll and Natalie looked at each other. Finally, someone was asking for something they actually had. “T-shirts aren’t a problem,” Natalie said. “Between us, we probably have a couple hundred.”

“Lemon juice isn’t an issue, either,” Darryll added. “We buy a gallon at a time because I use it to clean the bicycle grease off my clothes and Natalie uses it all over the kitchen. I just bought a new case a couple of days ago.”

Suddenly, everyone realized that Natalie was naked. While sitting in the dark she had become accustomed to her state of undress and the urgency with which she was summoned inside had overridden any sense of needing to get dressed. Her clothes were still in the dark on the landing outside the front door. She attempted to cover herself with her hands. “Oh shit, it’s not completely dark in here, is it? Uhm, let me run get those t-shirts!” she exclaimed as she ran toward the bedroom.

“I’ll help,” Miranda said, taking off after her.

The group watched as the two young women slipped into the darkness of the hallway, some enjoying the humor in what had just happened, others somewhat stunned by suddenly being yanked out of crisis mode. They heard Darryll say that the lemon juice was in his room, but no one paid any attention as he, too, walked into the darkness.

Amber tried keeping the group calm and together. “Look, the t-shirts are only going to help with breathing. Our eyes are still at risk. If you feel them begin to itch or water, don’t rub them, that will only make it worse. Hopefully, the source burns itself out quickly. Once it does, it should only take a couple of hours for the air to clear.”

“How do we even know for certain that it’s poison?” Amanda asked.

Amber looked at Hannah, still crying as Gloria and Toma stood tightly on either side. “I guess we can’t be one hundred percent certain without tests,” she said, “but Hannah’s been here before—she knows that smell and she knows what it can do. I think we’re better off taking what precautions we can, don’t you?”

Amanda nodded in agreement. 

“It is a slow death,” Hannah said, her voice weak and weary. “Once it is inside you, inside your lungs, there is nothing you can do. There is no medicine that can fix it. I was sick for weeks after my parents died. I survived because they thought I was going to die. They left me alone.” She coughed hard and teetered into Gloria’s arms. Her granddaughter held her tightly and helped her stand upright. “I’m not sure my body can go through that again. I’m not sure I want my body to go through that again. I’m old. Maybe I don’t want to fight anymore.”

A chorus of disagreement rose from the group as they circled closer to her. 

Gloria pulled her small grandmother into her chest. “We will have no talk of that,” she told her. “Remember all those stories you told me when I was little, the ones about dreaming of daisies so you could forget you were in prison? Or pretending that mush was paté? You were the one who taught me to find ways to survive even when surviving seemed impossible. I will not give up now. I will not let you give up now. We’ve lost too much today. I need you.”

Toma wrapped her arms around them both. “You know, in every disaster, there is someone who survives, some group who bands together and defies the odds so that someone else can make a crappy movie about their lives thirty years later. If you don’t survive, you don’t get to choose who plays you in the crappy movie. You don’t want that, do you?”

Hannah tried to smile. She knew the girls meant well. She also knew what she was already feeling in her lungs. Surviving might not be a matter of will but a matter of strength—a strength she wasn’t sure she had.

“I’m not sure I want to think about who’s going to play any of us in a crappy movie,” Amber said. “Hollywood doesn’t have enough awesome to handle this group, anyway!”

Barry laughed especially loud, taking a couple of steps away from the group as he coughed a couple of times. “Can you imagine,” he started, between coughs, “some poor casting agent trying to find someone to play me? They’d have to put like three guys inside a padded suit!” He laughed more at his self-deprecation. 

“They’ll have to get the prettiest girl in Hollywood to play me,” Cam said as she clutched Reesie’s leg. “Or maybe I’ll just play myself. Hollywood’s going to need some new people and maybe the movie won’t be so crappy if I’m in it.”

There was a collective sigh of relief and Amber was especially glad that the group had backed off the panic. She knew that the stressed breathing of fear would cause more of the poison gas to enter their lungs. Already, the fragrance was so light that their noses had adapted and they were no longer consciously aware of the danger.

In the darkness of her bedroom, Natalie fumbled around trying to find her dresser. “I know it’s here somewhere,” she told Miranda. “There’s underwear in the top drawer but everything under that is t-shirts.”

“Do you really have that many?” Miranda asked. “I have a few but my Mom said I was wasting my money on them.”

“Yeah, she’s not wrong,” Natalie said, laughing. “I only have so many because of all the bands I’ve covered. They think if they give me a t-shirt I have to be nice to them in my review. Most of them I’ve never worn. I save them just in case one of the bands happens to make it big. After a while, I use them as dust rags.”

There was a thump and an “ouch!” as Miranda collided with something in the dark.

Natalie laughed again. “I see you’ve found my bed!”

Miranda laughed as well, despite the pain that was shooting up her leg. “Is that what is meant by stumbling into bed?”

“I guess so,” Natalie giggled. “Here, if you can follow my voice, I found the dresser.”

Miranda felt her way across the bed toward Natalie, trying to use her hands to avoid bumping into anything else that might be there. With one hand in the air, it wasn’t long before she found Natalie’s shoulder. “Mmmm, you’re soft,” Miranda said. “Are you sure you want to get dressed? Maybe we just stay in here and I get naked with you.”

Perhaps earlier that day, before she had left for the coffee shop, Natalie would have pulled away, but the gentle touch of Miranda’s hand on her shoulder felt warm and tender. She stood quietly as Miranda’s hand moved gently down her arm, carefully across her breast, and toward her stomach. She leaned back, possibly instinctively, and let Miranda wrap her arms around her and kiss the back of her neck. She felt her nipples tighten and the beginnings of desire. It had been months since Darryll had aroused these feelings and he never had been this gentle. 

Natalie turned, using her own hands to reach under Miranda’s shirt and feel the younger woman’s delicate skin. She could feel Miranda’s warm breath on her face. She leaned in for the kiss.

“You guys find the t-shirts?” Darryll’s voice felt like it was being pushed through a loudspeaker as it interrupted the moment.
“Yeah, just loading up to bring them out,” Natalie replied, hoping the anxiousness didn’t show in her voice. “You find the lemon juice?”

“Yeah, with my feet,” he said. “I’m going to need steel-toed boots if we don’t get power back on.”

The women both laughed in an attempt to normalize the situation. “Let’s explore this later,” Natalie whispered into Miranda’s ear, giving her a soft kiss on the cheek. “I like the way you feel.”

Natalie turned back around and pulled a stack of t-shirts from the dresser drawer and handed them to Miranda before grabbing another stack herself. She was thankful for the darkness at the moment. She felt her face go flush. She wanted the intimacy Miranda was offering. She didn’t care whether it was practical or meaningful in any way. Miranda’s touch had been electric. Natalie hadn’t felt that way since college. 

Darryll was waiting for them at the bedroom door. They felt their way down the hallway toward the single light in the living room. As they approached, Natalie started tossing t-shirts as if she were at a sporting event. “A t-shirt for you! And a t-shirt for you!” she shouted, not too loudly but enough that it elicited a few grins from some in the group. “Don’t ask me about any of the bands, please,” she added. “I don’t even remember most of them.”

Darryll walked around and set the plastic gallon jugs of lemon juice next to the sink. “I hope no one’s allergic to lemons,” he said, but the group wasn’t paying attention as they ripped the shirts in an attempt to fashion reasonable covering for their faces. In a way, it felt like they were having a party. Even though they could barely see and the light from the single can of fuel was growing dim, anything that took their minds off the danger they were in was better than the panic they felt just a few moments ago.

As they finished created their face coverings, Amber instructed them, “Go see Darryll and soak it in lemon juice then wrap it as tightly around your face as you can. Try to not leave anything dry and make sure your nose and mouth are completely covered.”

Gloria was the first to rush over to Darryll with a t-shirt. “This one’s for my Gamma,” she said. 

Darryll smiled as he took the ripped t-shirt and poured lemon juice over it, making sure the fabric was soaked to the point it was almost dripping. “Make sure it doesn’t cut off her breathing,” he reminded her.

Adam was next. “This may be the strangest thing I’ve ever done,” he said as he handed Darryll the t-shirt. “Do you really think it will work?”

Darryll shrugged as he doused the shirt in lemon juice. “It makes sense I guess,” he said. “Lemon juice is acidic so I suppose that does something to whatever’s in the air.” He was handing the shirt back to Adam when the building shook with the force of a nearby explosion.
“That wasn’t thunder!” Amanda exclaimed as she reached out to Barry for support.

Cam screamed and wrapped her arms tightly around Reesie. “Don’t let me die!” she screamed. 

“Don’t worry, I’ve got you, baby,” Reesie whispered, trying to calm the girl. She wasn’t convinced that she wasn’t lying, though, and she felt her own legs struggle to maintain balance.

“That was too close!” Natalie said, rushing toward the door.

“Wait, don’t open that!” Amber warned. “If that was the source of the hydrogen cyanide, there’s even more poison in the air than there was before!”

Natalie stopped and leaned her back against the door. “Do you think that’s what it was?”

“I don’t know what else it could be,” Amber said. “Most likely someplace close by had chemicals stored and when they got wet it released the gas. Then, as more of the chemicals were exposed, maybe mixed together with the floodwater, it caused an explosion. The good news is that it should eliminate the danger. The bad news is that for the next hour or so, there’s enough poison in the air to kill us. We need to get these t-shirts on quickly!”

Everyone rushed toward the sink. Darryll was pouring lemon juice over the scraps of t-shirts as quickly as he could. Each person secured the material around their face and attempted to breathe as normally as they could with a face full of lemon going up their nostrils. When they looked around and saw each other, though, they couldn’t help but laugh.

“We look like a bunch of really bad bank robbers,” Cam said. 

Roscoe didn’t like having his snout covered and began barking and pulling at Gwen’s shirt. “What’s wrong, boy?” she asked. “You don’t like the smell of lemon, do you?” The dog barked more loudly, pushing Gwen away from the sliding glass door where she had been standing.

The building shook again and everyone reached for a piece of furniture to steady themselves.

“That didn’t feel like an explosion,” Toma said. “That felt deeper.”

“It wasn’t an explosion,” Carlson said. “That was the Wabash Valley fault line making some readjustments. That’s what Roscoe was trying to tell us. Hold on, there’s going to be more.”

He had barely gotten the words out of his mouth when the ground shook again, this time for several seconds, forceful enough that everyone in the apartment was on their hands and knees, looking to hide under the too-small kitchen table.

“Why?” Amanda yelled. “Why can we not get over one fucking disaster before the next one clobbers us?”

The ground shook again for nearly a minute this time. Dust fell from the ceiling and if there had been more light they would have noticed the cracks running up the walls. They all laid on the floor as one tremor after another rocked the entire apartment building giving them all reason to wonder if this was how they would die.

“Get to the doorways,” Carlson yelled. He began crawling on the floor until he reached the bathroom doorway. Cautiously, he stood, his back against the facing, his hands firmly gripping the top support.

Others soon followed. Reesie and Cam joined Carlson at the bedroom door. Amber followed Darryll to the door of his bedroom. Natalie grabbed Miranda’s hand and they made their way to the door of her bedroom. 

“Everyone else get in the hallway,” Carlson urged. 

The others gathered as close to doors as they could get, huddling in groups. Roscoe pinned Gwen to the floor near the bathroom, lying protectively over her, growling as though he were daring the ground to move again. Toma and Gloria huddled over Hannah just outside the hallway door. Barry took Amanda by the hand to the far corner of the hallway. “Stay close,” he told her. “If anything falls just let it bounce off me so it will miss you.”

Roscoe began barking loudly again, trying to push Gwen as tightly as possible against the wall.

“Look out,” Carlson warned. “We may have a complete plate separation coming.”

The next tremor was the strongest. The building moved back and forth like a tree limb caught in a wind storm. Plaster and dust fell from the ceiling. Dishes fell from the kitchen cabinets, breaking on the floor. Pictures fell off walls. The glass in the sliding door cracked, then shattered. For over a minute and a half, the tectonic plates supporting the earth’s surface moved nearly ten inches apart, opening large wounds in the ground, severing buried cables and pipelines.

When the shaking stopped, Carlson warned, “Don’t get up just yet. Stay put. There are likely to be consequences coming next.”

They waited in the dark, no one daring to say a thing, though curious as to how Carlson knew what was coming. They would need to ask questions later, providing they all didn’t die.

The next explosion they heard was some distance away, but it was followed just a few seconds later by another a little closer, and then a third even closer, and almost immediately by a fifth that couldn’t have been more than a couple of blocks away.

“What’s going on?” Gloria asked, fear and desperation in her voice reflecting the emotions they were all feeling.

“Gas lines,” Amber replied, intentionally taking some of the pressure off Carlson. “The earthquake caused them to sever and that set up a chain reaction of …”
She didn’t get to finish her sentence as the next explosion ripped up the pavement directly across the street from the apartment building, creating a crater nearly fifteen feet in diameter. The building shifted and began leaning as the ground around the South end of the building began to give way. Metal beams creaked and groaned as they began to buckle under the weight.

Roscoe barked loudly, this time grabbing Gwen by the shirt collar and pulling her toward the door. “Roscoe seems to think we need to leave,” Gwen said. “But it’s dark out. We can’t see!”

“He’s not the only one,” Reesie said. “No offense, but I’m not feeling like this is the safest place to be at the moment.”

“But it’s dark,” Gwen emphasized, “and the streets are still full of water that is even more dangerous now because there are huge holes in the ground! We can’t just go out and choose a new apartment building. There aren’t any others standing!”

“We can at least move down a floor,” Amber said. “We know the door’s open in the apartment where we found Cam. Even if this end of the building starts to crumble, that end of the building might stay intact a bit longer.”

“Definitely can’t stay here,” Darryll said. “My whole room’s a wreck now.”

“I’m not sure there’s anything in here that’s salvageable,” Natalie added. “Maybe a few clothes, but I don’t want to kill myself trying to find them.”

“Anyone opposed to switching apartments?” Amber asked. 

The group was unanimous in their decision to leave. They grabbed the remaining fuel cans and head for the door, their faces still wrapped in the lemon-juice-soaked t-shirts, making their way carefully down the now-tangled stairs to the second floor and the apartment on the far end. Once everyone was inside, Amber shut and locked the door. Natalie lit another fuel can.

And then it began to rain.

Flooding The Swamp

For well over a century, scientists had warned that the District of Columbia was in a precarious position that could easily be overwhelmed by a major weather event. As a result, almost every building had deep foundations and some protections against flooding. Estimates were that the city could likely handle a category three hurricane and the resulting storm surge with minimal damage to public buildings and monuments. While there were always those who warned existing precautions were insufficient, the majority of scientists and politicians agreed that the provisions and safeguards in place were reasonable enough. After all, a hurricane was the most dangerous threat they faced and those didn’t just show up without warning. If the city was evacuated in a timely manner, the loss from a direct hit would be minimal.

None of the models were close to anticipating what was happening at this moment, however. Massive tornadoes coming across Virginia and Maryland had already decimated Alexandria, Arlington, Bethesda, Silver Springs, and College Park. The storms seemed to have endless energy. Where one funnel would seem ready to give out, another would appear alongside it and the two would combine in a force capable of taking down anything in its path.

At the same time, a category five hurricane with sustained winds in excess of 250 miles per hour was coming ashore at Chincoteague, heading toward the capitol with even greater fury. Had climate scientists been aware of the impending collision between the two sets of weather phenomena, they likely would have evacuated the city hours ago, but with both radio and satellite communications down, they didn’t even know exactly what was coming at them until it was too late.

A storm surge over 20 feet high had consumed everything along the coast from Atlantic City to Chesapeake for 30 miles inland. The Boardwalk had crumbled, popular tourist sites vanished underwater, vital defense bases were either swept away or rendered useless. Ships docked at Norfolk and other nearby ports were tossed about like toys and overturned. They might have had a chance to survive on the open sea but there wasn’t enough warning to get them launched in time.

No one who was stuck in the traffic on the Beltway would survive. Bridge supports disintegrated. Vehicles were blown off the highway, picked up and tossed into buildings that crumbled with them. The effect was like an angered toddler who had grown upset with a game and tossed the board and its pieces around the room. Nothing was left anywhere close to where it was supposed to be.

In the darkness, no one could watch the destruction of national monuments as each was systematically obliterated. The Washington Monument, fittingly, went first. After several lightning strikes to its pinnacle, the strong winds severed the obelisk, carrying the top two-thirds over 15 miles away before shattering its massive limestone on top of a strip mall in Temple Hills. The columns of the Lincoln Memorial were sucked out one at a time, causing remaining portions of the memorial to crumble. The famous statue of the sixteenth president remained intact until the combination of high winds and pounding rains knocked it on its side. The image of the president broke into pieces that were then picked up and scattered across the region. The president’s head would eventually be found outside Baltimore. 

The Jefferson Memorial fared far worse. With its massive columns ripped from their base, the inner portion of the memorial magnified the winds. The statue of the president was like a toy bouncing off the engraved walls before finally being smashed into dust. The memorial’s massive dome might have looked like a flying saucer as it was lifted up and then smashed into the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

So it went around the city. Nothing survived. The treasures of the Smithsonian were scattered, some pieces of historical artifacts carried as far away as Philadelphia and Morgantown. Other museums similarly had their buildings destroyed and their contents ripped to shreds as they were carried miles away by the winds.

When the storms reached the Capitol, they were merciless. With no consideration for its proud history nor its incredible architecture, floodwaters breached the basement more quickly than anyone would have expected, trapping those who had taken refuge in what was supposed to have been the safest place in the building. Two different tornados took turns picking away at the massive limestone structure, slamming parts and pieces from other structures into its walls until the massive stones finally moved the slightest bit out of place. The cupola was gone, deposited in the Potomoc South of Alexandria. That left the rotunda area unprotected and even pieces of the massive marble floor took to the sky. 

The Capitol could have survived that attack, though, and could have been rebuilt. There was a respite of about 20 minutes where surviving members of Congress and their staffs rejoiced to still be alive, not yet aware of the numbers of their colleagues who weren’t. Had they been able to find champagne in the dark, they would have been drinking it. They couldn’t see anything but lightning to their East and thinking that tornadic activity tends to move West to East, they assumed they were in the clear.

No one was terribly worried when winds began to pick back up. They were more concerned with trying to salvage what they could find than getting themselves to a place of safety. By the time they realized they were still in danger, it was too late. Wind speeds increased rapidly from 10 miles per hour to 20, then 50, then 80. Walls of rain carried by the wind slammed into the building with a force exceeding anything its architects could have ever imagined. Windspeed passed 300 miles per hour and even the massive limestone walls could no longer stay in place, but the hurricane was not done. Estimates calculated posthumously would claim the hurricane got up to unheard-of speeds over 500 miles per hour. There was nothing that could withstand such a destructive force. The size of the storm was so broad that it lingered over the Capitol unrelenting in its wrath for nearly two hours. By the time it moved Northward to obliterate what was left of Baltimore and Philadelphia, even the building’s foundation had taken damage that could not be repaired.

The Situation Room of the White House (officially part of the Presidential Emergency Operations Center) constructed specifically to keep the President safe and block out any external distractions. Buried deep below the subbasement, the concept had been that the room should be able to withstand a direct hit from a nuclear weapon. Getting there took time and access was limited. So when Director Raddison, at the President’s insistence, opened the door and pulled the security detail and a handful of low-level aides into the room with them, he was effectively deciding who among those in the White House were going to survive.

To some degree, the White House fared better than most of the structures around Washington. The hurricane took out the East Wing first, taking with it any evidence of the former First Lady’s attempt to poison President Blackstone. As it made its way across the building, the residence and third-floor amenities were wiped off as though some almighty being had brushed its hand over the structure. The West Wing partially survived with part of two walls left standing, but anything, and anyone, left inside was gone. 

Across the entire District, basement shelters proved to be death traps. The whole concept of the shelters had been that even in the event of a nuclear disaster, most of the building, at least the portion of floor directly above the basement, would remain intact. No one expected rain on top of that attack. Nature proved to have more destructive force than any bomb, however. While the hurricane winds toppled buildings, tornados of monumental proportion dug down, creating trenches in the ground, ripping up the floors that protected the basements that now, as unending rain poured upon them, caused the basements to fill with water. Those who had taken shelter were not able to escape. They could either drown or risk being blown away.

Terri was among those who chose to take her chances with the hurricane’s winds. Unable to see through the torrent of water, she stumbled across the rubble of the White House, she tried to stay low to the ground, hiding behind pieces of limestone and any other large element that could provide her a moment’s escape from the wind. Nothing held for long, though, and she kept moving horizontally to the hurricane, crawling over shards of glass, torn pieces of metal, splinters of trees, and shattered remnants of office furniture. 

The rain left her cold and wet. Her hands and knees were bloody. Pieces of office supplies were stuck in her hair. Dramatically low air pressure made it difficult to breathe. No matter how many times she tried wiping the water from her eyes, she still couldn’t see. Terri finally reached a support stone at a corner of the White House. These were titanic pieces of limestone more than six feet thick in any direction. She was sure she would be safe lying low behind this stone. For several minutes she was correct. As long as she stayed down at the center of the stone, both the wind and the rain went around her. She had a chance to catch her breath and try to plan for what to do next. If necessary, she would stay right there until the whole thing finally blew over, however long that might take.

Nature was hurling everything she could find at the other side of the stone. A cherry tree that had looked so beautiful in spring hit the limestone, its branches reaching over and slapping Terri on top of the head before they were snatched up and moved elsewhere. A pickup truck carried from some unknown parking lot fell on top of the stone, narrowly avoiding crushing Terri beneath it. For several minutes, Terri sat there shivering and shuddering every time something new hit the other side of the block. 

Finally, another piece of limestone smashed into the corner block with all the fury of a freight train. Pieces of gravel flew everywhere, embedding themselves into Terri’s skin. The corner block crumbled then gave way to the wind, taking the shelter Terri needed to stay alive.

Terri had no choice but to start crawling again. Making her way across the lawn, she would occasionally think she saw the shadow of another person, and perhaps she did, but there was no way to get their attention and before she could find the energy to scream they would be gone. She kept moving, ignoring all the pain, fighting off the urge to stop and give in. She felt the ground beneath her transition from grass to concrete to asphalt to dirt. She was well away from the White House now. She wasn’t sure if it was 17th street or H street that she was crossing, but she knew she hadn’t seen any sign of the buildings and statues that should have been close by. There might have been tears in Terri’s eyes as she thought of the hundreds of thousands of lives already lost, she couldn’t tell. No matter which way she turned, the rain was constantly in her face, obscuring her vision. 

Terri knew her only hope out in the open was to keep moving. Sooner or later she would have to come across something—a piece of a wall, the base of a statue—anything solid enough to give her a moment’s respite from the storm. She never made it. Mercifully, she neither saw nor heard the SUV before it landed on top of her. She might have known the two Secret Service agents inside but they were already dead as well. No one outside was going to survive.

Throughout the darkness of the night, the endless wave of tornados and hurricanes persisted. There was little difference felt between the departure of one and the arrival of another. Each one brought another tidal surge and several more feet of water. Annapolis, Fort Meade, and Joint Base Andrews were all under several feet of water. Philadelphia looked like Venice without the benefit of gondolas. New York’s towering skyline was completely dismantled. The only parts of buildings still standing were those under water.

For six unrelenting hours, the storms took their toll, wreaking Nature’s vengeance on those who had exploited and misused her resources.  She didn’t care if anyone survived. Humans were an infestation and reducing their number was necessary to maintain the balance she needed. She wouldn’t stop until she felt the scourge of humanity was put in its place.

Conversations In The Face Of Disaster

The SitRoom felt crowded, but it was a welcome and necessary condition given everything that was going on outside. The Presidential Emergency Operations Center was located deep beneath the East Wing of the White House. Had this been a typical tornadic situation, even a strong one of F4 or F5 classification with deep trench-digging capability, the entire underground facility would have been safe. But nothing about today had been typical and the combination of storms with 20 to 30-foot storm surge created a deadly plight even in this safest of places. Everyone inside the situation room was safe. There were no windows and the doors sealed so no water was coming in. Outside that room, however, water had rushed in as soon as the ground-level portions of the East Wing had been destroyed. Panicked staff members had fled only to be caught up in the unrelenting winds, tossed about like rag dolls, their lifeless bodies deposited across the region. 

Four Secret Service agents had stayed outside the SitRoom door, guarding the President and Vice President. The water they could handle; its volume, though rushing in quickly, never grew beyond knee-deep levels. Random debris coming through the ceiling was a greater problem. Massive chunks of lead-lined concrete killed two of the agents. Jagged pieces of rebar flung through the air with the force of a cannon violently pierced the body of a third. The fourth, a senior agent with almost 30 years of dedicated service, ducked and dodged the debris, doing his best to maintain his commitment to protect the president. The up and down of the air pressure was more than his body could handle, though, and as the pressure dropped with a third tornado, his lungs collapsed. He dropped to his knees, struggled to breathe, and finally gave in to the darkness.

Inside the crowded SitRoom, there was no way of knowing the specifics of what was happening outside, but the frequency with which the ground beneath the room shook was enough to let them know they had never experienced anything like this before. While the President and Vice President tried to remain calm and the Secret Service agents maintained their stoic demeanor, the young aides and interns, none of whom were older than 30, were terror-stricken, a couple on the verge of hysteria.

President Watkins almost-instinctively switched into “Mother” mode. “Looks like we could be down here for a while,” she said. “We might as well get to know each other. I’ll start. My name is Norma Watkins. When I woke up this morning, I was Speaker of the House of Representatives. Now, through a bizarre and disturbing set of circumstances, I am President of the United States. I didn’t ask for this job and I’m still not sure I want this job, but for the moment it’s mine and going to do my damndest to make sure the United States of America survives and rebuilds from this horrific tragedy.” The President paused and turned to her right. “Will, you’re up next. Give these young friends a fair warning.”

Will smiled, partly in acknowledgment of the President’s jab at his reputation as a by-the-book attorney, and partially knowing that the audience of aides were not likely aware of the reference. “My name is William Vincent Tucker,” he started. “I had the position of White House Counsel until late this afternoon and now I’m suddenly Vice President. If you knew me at all, that would probably cause you to pray that President Watkins doesn’t die while in office. I believe that the Constitution is a hard and fast set of rules for how the country should be run and is not subject to loose and wild interpretation. That opinion tends to not make me popular in the building because I spend a lot of time telling powerful people like the President that no, they can’t do what they want. Now, I’m one of those people. This is going to be an interesting experience.” He looked across the table. Katy was shaking her head, not wanting to go next. Will gave an evil grin and said, “Perhaps Ms. Lamb should go next. I think you’ll find her somewhat easier to work with.”

Katy tried giving Will the harshest glance she could muster, but even at her angriest, Katy’s pleasant demeanor still dominated. She looked around the table before speaking, taking in the terrified faces. “I’m Katy Lamb,” she started, then paused. She glanced nervously at the President who nodded for her to go on. “I guess I’m now Chief of Staff to the President of the United States and if we’re all being totally honest, I’ve no clue what I’m doing. I’m accustomed to managing a team of about 40 aides, and it’s nice to see a couple of familiar faces in this group. When this all finally shakes out, though … whew, the White House staff is huge, the responsibility to the President is overwhelming, and I’m not sure I’m ready for this. So, uhm, Director Raddison, I guess you should go next.”

Raddison’s expression was a different kind of uncomfortable. He was accustomed to dealing with department heads, people with education and experience, professionals with years of experience in their fields. He looked around the table and, from his perspective, they might as well have been a group of six-year-olds on a school field trip. Looking up, he saw both the President and Vice President chuckling at his predicament. “Uhm, I’m Roger Raddison,” he began slowly. “I’m Director of National Security, which means I’m supposed to keep all the agencies of the federal government working together to keep America safe from bad people.”

Will snickered at Roger’s reference to “bad people.” Roger rolled his eyes in response.

“What’s making me nervous at the moment is knowing that outside this room, millions, maybe even billions of people are dying and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. I wish I could. Every fiber in my being wishes that I could have stopped whatever happened. I couldn’t, though. And now that it’s happened, everyone in this room, everyone who survives, shares responsibility for what we do moving forward. In a way, I guess, you all are lucky. You have a chance to shape what we become more than any generation since our founding. You’re important. You’re important to this country.”

Sensing that Roger was about to launch into patriotic speech mode, the President interrupted. “Thanks, coach,” she said. “Now I know who to send out when we need someone inspiring.” Norma smiled as she spoke. 

Roger blushed. He would be happy when he was dealing with “real” adults again.

Norma looked around the table and settled on the person sitting next to Will. “Young man, why don’t you go next?” She asked.

Fear immediately crossed the young man’s face as the President addressed him. He was accustomed to keeping his head down, saying “yes, sir” when spoken to, and, as much as anything, keeping his opinions to himself. “My name is Mohammed Ashir,” he said quietly. “I am an aide to Undersecretary Greyson of Health and Human Services. I was sent to the White House to ask whether the Center For Disease Control should prepare emergency services. I’m guessing the answer is probably yes.”

Norma, Will, and Roger all laughed at Mohammed’s understated recognition of the obvious. 

“Mohammed, you may have to handle that roll out yourself,” Roger said. “Think you can handle it?”

Mohammed’s eyes grew large. “Uh, Director Raddison, sir, thank you, but I’m not even sure who to contact!”

Roger smiled. “Don’t worry, we’ll figure it out. I’m concerned we may have lost a lot of resources across the country. I need a point person. How long have you worked here?”

“About seven months,” the young man replied. 

“I hope you paid attention,” Roger said. “You may be the most experienced person over at HHS now.”

Mohammed looked more frightened than he had when he first started talking. “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”

Norma smiled in the kindest, most motherly way she could. “Mohammed, I’m glad you’re here. I’m sure your skills will grow and you’ll be an invaluable part of our growth.” She looked to the other side of the table where a young woman sat slumped in her chair, trying to hide behind the file folder she was carrying. “Let’s jump to the other side of the table,” the President said. “The young woman next to Director Raddison, why don’t you let us know who you are?”

The anxious girl slowly lowered the file folder, looking over the top at the President through eyeglasses whose designer frames did little to hide the fact that the girl was almost blind without them. She sat up, put the file folder on the table, and gathered her composure. “My name is Olivia Jackson,” she said. “I’m originally from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I’m an intern for Senator Garibaldi and was supposed to deliver these papers to the White House but I’ve never been here before and when I got here I was just kind of shoved downstairs here and now I’m not really sure I know what I’m supposed to do.”

“May I see the papers, Olivia?” the President asked. 

Olivia nodded and handed the folder to Katy who passed them on to Norma. The President looked through them carefully, skimming her way through the major points. “Seems Senator Garibaldi was concerned that President Blackstone’s policies on food assistance were adversely affecting a disproportionate share of people of color.” Norma paused as she finished looking through the papers. “Where did you go to college, Olivia?” she asked.

“UNC, ma’am,” Olivia answered. “I majored in Social Policy Development.”

“Do you agree with the Senator’s assessment of the situation?” Norma continued.

There was a moment of anxiety that passed across Olivia’s face before she realized what was happening and composed herself as she had when defending her thesis at school. “I don’t have enough information to speak to the situation in whole, ma’am,” she said, “but I do know that in the neighborhood I grew up in, food stamps were the only thing that put any food on anyone’s table. Those that couldn’t get it, like, because they had just gotten out of jail or something, they’d only have what people with food stamps could give them, like maybe some bread and some peanut butter. The cuts President Blackstone ordered last year made it even worse so that, like, if both parents weren’t living in the same house the benefits the mom might need to feed her kids were cut in half. They don’t have enough to feed themselves, let alone share. The entire neighborhood is starving, which often leads to theft and violence.”

Norma closed the folder and set it on the table in front of her. She folded her hands and leaned forward. “So, if you were in charge, what changes would you make so that everyone had an equal chance?”

Olivia thought a moment then said, “I think, Madam President, that the program needs to be revised to recognize that people who live in impoverished communities and neighborhoods, especially urban neighborhoods that also tend to be food deserts, often feed more than their own direct family members. Where food is less accessible, it’s the community’s need, not just the family’s need that should be considered.”

Norma nodded in agreement. “I like that concept,” she said. “Perhaps Senator Giribaldi should have talked with you. Your idea makes more sense than what she put in this proposal.” Norma passed the file folder over to Katy. “I think we’ll be able to find an important place for you, Olivia,” she said as she smiled. “I like the way you think.”

Young people who are successful at landing the highly competitive jobs as aides and interns are inherently bright and intelligent people and those in the SitRoom with the President quickly picked up on what was happening. More than just killing time, the President was essentially conducting interviews to fill positions in her new administration. By the time her conversation with Olivia was complete, no one was left slouching in a chair, the looks of fear and intimidation were gone. In their place sat a group of sharp, attentive people who were anxious to share what they could bring to the administration.

Norma picked up on the change in attitude and smiled. “Vice President Tucker, the next choice should be yours, I believe.”
“Thank you, Madam President,” Will said as he smiled and nodded. He looked carefully around the room. “There,” he said motioning to the corner of the room opposite him, “the young woman in the back there in the blue dress. Why don’t you step up a little where we can see you and tell us your name?”

The young woman stepped between to others and into the light. “My name is Sophia Ameretto Wattenberg,” she announced. “I’m an aide to Secretary Kaiser at the State Office. I was sent over to provide a briefing on the status of our trade treaty with Japan that is set to expire next year.”

“That’s certainly important,” Will said. “I understand negotiations have been going on for some time. Have you been a part of those negotiations?”

“No, sir,” Sophia answered. “The negotiation team is still in Tokyo. They did send a report over yesterday and that is largely why I was sent over this morning.”

Will nodded. “Abbreviate for me, please,” he said. “How are things going?”

Sophia took a big breath, not sure exactly how her planned statement would go over. “Well, Mr. Vice President, at Secretary Kaiser’s insistence, the team has been pushing Tokyo to important more American goods and products so as to dimish the size of the deficit. Initially, they seemed open to the proposition, but then, Secretary Kaiser suggested that perhaps a tariff on some products, such as smaller electronics, and that was not received positively.”

Will looked over at Norma and rolled his eyes. She nodded her agreement. “Tariffs are a difficult bargaining tool. Do you agree with the Secretary’s opinion?”

“No, sir,” Sophia wisely answered. “Tariffs are a punitive measure that ultimately hurt consumers on both sides. I think it might be more appropriate to suggest possibly reducing existing tariffs on US products and let supply and demand balance out the deficit.”

“You have a background in economics?” Will asked.

“Yes, sir,” Sophia answered. “I have a Master’s degree in Global Economics and Trade from Stanford. I’ve been an aide for Asian Relations for the past two years.”

Norma sat forward to insert herself into the conversation. “Why Asian Relations, Sophia? Do you have particular skills in that area?”

Sophia swallowed hard before answering. “No, Madam President, I was just assigned here. My expertise is centered more around global economic policy. I believe the United States is, or at least has been, in a position to use its dominant status to create a more level playing field, especially in regard to South American countries who end up consuming a large amount of humanitarian aid because we destabilize their economies with our prohibitive trade agreements. I think the more effort we put into building South American economies the less humanitarian assistance they are likely to need.”

Conversations like this continued into the night, conveniently taking all attention away from the storms that still caused the room to rock every once in a while. Each aide and intern did their best to convince the President and Vice President that they could be suitable and appropriate additions to her administration once the storm was over. For her part, President Watkins treated the young people respectfully as though they had more experience than was actually the case. She was beginning to see some of the potential leadership they would need to piece the country back together and begin moving forward. 

Only Roger remained keenly aware of how long the storms were continuing. He knew that when they did finally open the door to the SitRoom, the disaster they were likely to find would be heart-wrenching for everyone. He also worried that their ability to defend the country was severely compromised. Fortunately, there was no one who still had the resources to do any damage, but he didn’t know that yet and it was cause for him to spend most the night looking as though he hated everyone in the room. 

A couple of hours into their introductions, the room was shaken yet again, this time hard enough to cause everyone to hold on to the table or the wall for support. “The world’s not going to look pretty when we leave here,” Norma said. “We’ve got to be ready to take the worst and turn it into the foundation for what can be the best.”

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