Pt. 20: Another Tuesday In Another Coffee Shop

This is it. This is where it all ends. 20 weeks this has gone on. I’ve been amazed that anyone at all as read every week. What I’ll do now is dump everything in a massive file, print it out, and take a red pen to it all. I know there are a number of discrepancies and a few elements that might not be needed. Once I get it edited down, we’ll decide whether to submit it for publication or just do a limited edition quick run sort of thing.

Next week, I’ll go back to shorter topics for a while, get some things off my chest, probably for the remainder of the year. I have a new book concept and it would work well if I start the first Sunday of 2020.

Thank you for reading.

Prologue: Five Years Later

They sat around a group of tables pushed together at the only diner large enough to accommodate them. Among them this time were children. Ravie was now seven. Devin was nine, Gwen’s Hannah Grace was precocious at four-and-a-half, and Miranda was six weeks from delivering Darryll Adam Kirshner. Cam, no longer a child at 19, was tall, lanky and had developed Reesie’s grace and tone to the degree that people on the street assumed they were mother and daughter. There were smiles and hugs and tears as they each arrived, taking places around the tables, then getting back up to hug someone else they hadn’t seen when they first arrived. 

A little extra space was cleared for Adam who now needed a walker to get around and required oxygen at the ready. Amber brought him with her but he still insisted on getting himself and his equipment into the restaurant and set up on his own. 

They all cheered when Barry arrived. He had dropped 150 pounds, partly due to starvation he claimed, and had taken up a rigorous workout schedule in an effort to stay fit. He was relatively well-known now for speaking out against body shaming and advocating for people to take responsibility for their own health. 

The gathering had all the trappings of a family reunion. Amanda had made t-shirts with the slogan, “Together We Survive” across the front of them, making sure she had them in colors that matched everyone’s size and personality. Gloria had insisted on name tags out of fear that she might embarrass herself by forgetting someone’s name. 

As a group, it had been over four-and-a-half years since they’d all been together. It had taken two days of floating after leaving the apartment building before they found another living human. After the floodwaters went down, they still used the boats as “home” and helped look for other survivors. All told, just over 1,000 people were left in a city that had once been home to over 600,000. 

Six months had passed before life returned to anything that resembled normal and normal had been completely redefined. They had electricity, most of which was now solar powered because there weren’t enough people left to run the power stations or string new lines across the country. They had internet because an enterprising young Russian had figured out a way to capture and re-purpose the hundreds of “dead” satellites that no longer had anyone controlling them. Travel was possible if one could find a vehicle that hadn’t been completely ruined by the flood but it would still be years before a fraction of major roads were paved again.

Gloria and Toma had been the first to leave town, having decided to head for New Jersey and see if any of Toma’s family had survived. Only her younger sister, Mary, had managed to find a place of safety. They set up a home built from the debris they found and began helping others recover.

Natalie and Miranda had moved Chicago a few weeks later as Natalie was offered an editorial position at a new media company composed of every journalist, photographer, and media production person that could be found. The company was still small, a scant 25 people, but the work was exciting and Natalie felt she was doing something important. Their decision to add to their family had come with the President’s encouragement that it was the responsibility of those who could to help the country grow. A new federal program covered all the necessary medical costs for artificial insemination and Miranda had proven to be the better recipient. They were both excited and terrified by the prospects facing them.

Everyone else had stayed local but as time had gone by they saw each other less and less. Lives became busy. There were new places to live, new jobs to create, a new city to build. With so few people left, only those genuinely disabled weren’t employed in some helpful manner. Everyone did everything they could and what they couldn’t do they learned. 

Gathering now was exciting. They felt as though life was finally moving forward again. They could hold conversations without breaking down crying. Memories, while still sad, didn’t leave them all depressed for the next week.

“Hey, Ressie,” Amanda half-yelled down the length of the table, “Did you hear that the new doctor has a background in neurology?”

Reesie’s face lit up. “Yes!” she said. “I met her at the market the other day. She looked at Ravie and thinks she might be able to help. We have an appointment next week. This is the first good news for him since he was little.”

“You guys are such great parents for him,” Miranda said. “Is he handling all the changes okay?”

“Changes are all he knows now,” Timora replied. “We spent so much time moving from one place to another that when we did finally stay in one place more than a couple of weeks, he got upset and wanted to know when we were going to move again. He’s adapted so much better than we have.”

“Oh, you all might want to know, the President’s coming for the wreath-laying at the memorial next Wednesday,” Amber said. “Apparently she’s trying to make as many of them as she can. I’ve heard she’s amazingly empathetic with survivors.”

“I’m not surprised,” Gloria responded. “Didn’t she lose her entire family as well?”

“Everyone on her staff lost their entire family,” Natalie answered. “I was down there two weeks ago and was amazed at how much they’ve changed the way government works. I suppose it helps that there’s not as many of us now to manage, but it was a lot friendlier than DC ever thought about being.”

Barry was making his way around the table, refilling everyone’s coffee cup for the harried server who wasn’t accustomed to having this many guests at a time. “Moving the capital off the East coast might have had something to do with that,” he said. “Although, building a whole new city from scratch where none had existed before still feels a little imperialistic if you ask me.”

“It makes sense if you ask me,” Gwen responded. “There’s less clean up involved. You’ve seen how long it’s taken to just get things to a place where we can build anything here. It’s been five years and every time someone digs a foundation for something they’re finding more pieces of someone. I’m not sure we all shouldn’t have just moved out and started over in a pasture somewhere.”

“How’s the new White House coming along?” Amanda asked. “Is it going to be anything like the old one?”

“It’s kind of tough to tell,” Natalie replied. “They’ve finally made it to the point they have exterior walls going up, but there’s so much new tech being built into this place that visual progress is moving slowly. They’re not going to call it the White House anymore, though. It’s just ‘The Residence’ and the President will live and work from one side and the Vice President will live and work in the other. Then, the cabinet-level departments will all be in something of a circle around The Residence.”

Adam removed his oxygen for a moment so he could speak loud enough for everyone to hear. “What I don’t get is that there’s not a Capitol building anymore. They have the House of Representatives in one place and the Senate in another. What’s up with that?”

“They’re afraid of losing them all again,” Reesie said. “The fact that what, only two representatives and one senator survived and that’s because they were not at the Capitol, factored strongly into that decision.”

“They’re also redefining the powers and roles of each body,” Natalie said. “They’re preparing to announce proposals for Constitutional Amendments next month and I think it’s going to be a positive move. We saw how the partisan bickering made everything impossible last time. They’re looking for solutions to that problem.”

“I feel so much like we’re kind of pioneers now, starting our own new country,” Toma said. “I mean, it’s nice we have the Constitution to define limits and such for now, but we have an opportunity to make things so much better, remove the encoded biases that were there before, make a point of being equal as the default.”

Miranda pushed her chair back a little and put her hands on her stomach. “Whew, this little guy seems to have an opinion,” she laughed. “I went with Nat to Democracy Center and I feel sorry for those guys. They’ve got something like 400 people trying to do the work of 400,000. Half of those are like my age, no real experience, just trying to do the best they can. I mean, the kids in the state department can speak like a total of ten languages combined. They have the major languages, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean covered, but anything for the Middle East? Forget it. Africa? Not a chance. And there are no translators. Fortunately, everyone’s still like trying to rebuild their own countries so no one’s being pushy yet, but you know it’s going to come.”

“That sounds like you might have an interest in helping out there,” Amber said. “I think there are chances for all of us to participate at a higher level than we would have otherwise expected. Personally, I’m considering running for Governor. No one else seems to be stepping up and we’re starting to grow enough we really need someone in that position.”

“I’d love to serve on your campaign!” Barry immediately volunteered. “Although, I have to admit it’s nice having you as Mayor and not having to worry about a lot of state government.”

“I totally understand,” Amber said, “There are twenty-five towns across the state now and we need to start making cohesive decisions about things such as land management, what’s suitable for farming and what isn’t, how we deal with the contaminated material we continue to find, Do we go all-in on solar energy or do we try to add wind back into the mix again? Are cities responsible only for their own energy or that of the region around them? Who is going to support those brave souls willing to try their hand at farming? There’s a lot to think about and I want to make sure we don’t repeat previous mistakes.”

“You can totally count on Devin and me,” Amanda said eagerly. “We’ve been talking in ‘school’ about what a government is and how they’re supposed to work. It would be good for him to watch the process up close.”

“What do you think, Devin?” Amber asked.

“I dunno,” he mumbled as he stared at his gaming device. “Do  you think we can get global servers back like Mom says they used to have?”

“Well, I …” Amber started, looking at the others for help answering the question.

Barry smiled and jumped in. “I think there’s a set of servers scheduled to connect to the satellite system next month,” he said. “And they’re big new ones, not monster servers made of recycled parts. They’ll be able to handle the volume.”

“Sweet!” Devin exclaimed, never looking up from his game. Ravie walked over and watched over his shoulder.

“How’s the whole school thing going?” Gloria asked. “I know I kinda miss being in class.”

“It’s … interesting,” Amanda said. “There are online curriculums that are helpful, but they were all developed for a different world than what we have now. They talk about cities with millions of people living in them and, from what I understand, those don’t exist anymore. A lot of the social references they make exist anymore.”

Natalie nodded her head in agreement. “We’re having to completely re-write everything. It seems crazy that over four billion people could die in the span of about 48 hours. Our best information is that Mumbai has about 80,000 people and Beijing may have as many as 120,000, but it’s difficult to be sure because both countries had their governments completely wiped out and there’s a lot of fighting about who gets to control things. Our best guess is there are about 2.5 billion people living in communities under 1,000 people, all self-governed, and getting along amazingly well that way.”

Adam coughed hard as he removed his oxygen tube again. “Seems to me, one of the lessons we should be learning is that layers of large government do more harm than good. Hell, large government helped create this mess we’re in now. Why would we ever want to go back to that kind of system?”

“Because there are some things we can only do as a larger unit,” Amber replied. “I agree, though. I think we have to put a lot more limits on what governments at any level can do. Like, the President’s program for replacing the old Interstate system with high-speed rail. That’s something only a federal government can facilitate. It doesn’t need to be altered as it runs from one state or region to the next. But we don’t need the federal or state government messing around in our coffee shops and grocery stores. Different regions have different needs and need the power to address those needs without interference.”

Miranda gave a short scream as the baby kicked. “Oh, that was a hard one! I’m going to assume that means he agrees with you.”
“Hey, Reesie,” Gwen started, leaning over to look down the table. “What’s the word on you getting back into the coffee business?”

“It’s still going to be a couple of years before there’s really any fresh stock of beans,” she answered. “I mean, what we’re drinking here is artificially produced, and it’s okay, but we all prefer beans so I’d rather wait until I have good stock. However,” she smiled and pulled Cam close, “This young lady is a whiz at baking, so we’ve been talking about opening up a pastry shop for her and then when the material is ready I’ll open a coffee shop attached to it. I’m thinking of naming it Another Tuesday.”

“Oh, that would be wonderful!” Gwen nearly shouted. “We’d be in all the time! Hanna Grace loves pastries.” 

The little girl looked up from her book. “Mom, there you go again, applying human emotion to an inanimate object. I love you. I devour jelly donuts.”

The group roared with laughter.

At the other end of the table, Barry’s, Nat’s, and Miranda’s cell phones dinged at the same time. They looked at each other cautiously, wondering if they should check them. Barry looked at his first, then said, “Nat, this looks like something in your area. Colonel somebody died.”

“Perry Dawkins?” Natalie asked as she looked at her phone. “He was head of the project that accidentally knocked all the satellites out. He was also responsible for getting everything back online. The guy lost both legs when a plane crashed into their research facility. He never stopped blaming himself for all the deaths, though. I’ve never met someone more tormented.”

“Didn’t everyone who was really responsible die either somewhere during the storms or the aftermath?” Amanda asked. “I mean, every politician for as long as I could remember talked about ‘draining the swamp’ but those storms eliminated the whole swamp and almost everyone in it. There were what, less than 200 survivors from DC?”

“The entire East Coast had its shoreline adjusted,” Toma responded. “All the boardwalk casinos and barrier islands are completely gone. My favorite family vacation spot in Connecticut doesn’t exist anymore.” She paused and wiped a tear from her eye. “My first girlfriend lived in Rhode Island. The entire state disappeared.”

Gloria and Miranda both reached over and put an arm around Toma. The rest of the table was silent for a moment, leaving only the sounds of the children chatting, video games playing, and spoons clanking as they swirled the creamer inside coffee cups. None of them had escaped deeply personal loss. Childhood memories, early romantic relationships, and favorite places were all gone. While federal programs for rebuilding were strong and generous, there weren’t enough people left in any one place to rebuild cities anywhere close to the state they had been before the storm.

Amber seemed to be the last effected, though she was so well-practiced at keeping her composure that no one could really be sure what she was feeling. After staring into her almost-empty coffee cup for a sufficient amount of time, she restarted the conversation. “We have a couple of large construction teams hitting town next month,” she said. “They’ll build a municipal building, something that’s safe and functional, capable of holding our entire population plus a few if necessary. Then, they’ll make sure everyone has a decent home to live in. We still have too many people living in tar-paper huts without running water or toilets. We’ll have a decent sewage system by the time they leave.”

Gwen looked up. “What about trees?” she asked. “It really makes me sad that there are so few trees left. And Roscoe would really like the shade.”

The mention of Roscoe was enough to make everyone smile. 

“I think we want to get through the winter first,” Amber said. “With all the changes in weather patterns, it’s hard to know what Nature is going to throw at us in terms of snow and low temperatures. We’ll want to be careful to choose trees that are going to survive year-round. But when we order, we’ll get shrubbery and flowers, too.”

“Bring me a shrubbery!” the entire table responded in unison, which made everyone laugh and for several minutes, the room was full of smaller conversations as everyone had a comment or memory. The young waitress, who knew them all but had a separate survival experience, brought them their food: veggie nuggets for the kids, various salads and manufactured soy products for the adults. Looking at the plates, one might have been fooled into thinking that everything was back to normal, but the food tasted nothing like what they had enjoyed before. There was no sugar or other sweeteners, few spices, and even basic grains were in short supply. Because of the limits in resources, food production of any kind was tightly controlled and that inevitably led to a sameness no matter what one was pretending to eat. Still, after two years of near starvation, no one complained. 

As they sat there talking and eating, Amber saw a familiar shadow pass the diner’s window. She set down her fork and stood up. “Excuse me for a moment, please,” she said. “I think I saw someone I need to speak with. I’ll be right back.” 

No one seemed surprised. Amber was mayor, after all, and such interruptions were to be expected. The group excused her with a chorus of mixed platitudes and continued their conversations.

Amber stepped around the corner and was not surprised to find Djali standing there in the shadow, still wearing the same perfectly-pressed suit he always wore. “You know, wearing a suit like that around here is really going to make you stand out. What the fuck are you doing here?”

“I heard we were having a reunion,” he said. “I thought I’d drop by and see how everyone’s doing.”

“Everyone’s just fine,” Amber growled. “There’s nothing for you to do here.”

Djali smiled. “I know. You’ve made sure everyone here has plenty of protection. You’ve grown a nice little town. You don’t even need a police department … yet.”

Amber took a threatening step closer to the demon. “And you’re not going to mess that up, are you? Every one of these people has been through incredible trauma. They’ve lost everything and are struggling to rebuild their lives. You and your kind can just stay the fuck away.”

“Don’t worry,” he said, mockingly raising his hands in front of his face as though he might need to defend himself. “We have strict orders to stay away from almost the entire continent. Tribalism hasn’t set in here like it has in Africa and South America. Those places are keeping us busy. They don’t have many people as it is and they still keep killing each other because those who survived don’t trust anyone. The only trouble spots here are out in the new deserts of the Dakotas, Colorado, and Kansas. Just little pockets where all the less-than-cooperative people seem to have gathered. They’re not wanted anywhere else.”

“So why, the fuck, are you here?” Amber asked again. 

Djali sighed and dropped his head. “Seriously, Amber, I just wanted to see how everyone was doing. I waded through the water with these people, remember?”

“And killed three of them,” Amber reminded him.

“They slipped,” he said defensively. “I just didn’t do anything to stop them.”

“You fucking son-of-a- …”

“Stop, Amber,” Djali interrupted. “You keep forgetting that I do have a conscience. I’m capable of feeling compassion, it’s just not in my nature to act on it. Just like we both know you have the ability to spew some real vile when it’s warranted; you’re just good at keeping a lid on it. I really feel for these people and I’m a bit sad they didn’t all make it. That wasn’t my doing, by the way.”

Amber sighed. “I know. The clouds were boiling over that fight. It must have been intense up there.”

Djali nodded his head and winced at the memory. “You know, we all get into fights every once in a while, but I don’t remember one that bad since that last European war. And you know what? The guys at the top just laughed. We were mere amusement for them.”

“Hopefully they got their fill for a century or two,” Amber said. “It’s going to take at least a couple hundred years before anything down here starts to resemble what it was before.”

“Just be careful,” Djali warned. “While we may be taking a well-deserved break, humans are still going to be humans. All the greed, the lust for power, the lying, it will all come back. You can’t keep it away forever. We have nothing to do with that.”

“I know,” Amber admitted. “I’ve already made plans for a police department when we need it. I can do a lot but I can’t keep people from being people.”

There was a sudden rush of wind as Destefana appeared suddenly behind Djali. “Get out of the way, Squirt,” she ordered. “I need a hug.” 

Djali obediently stepped to the side as Amber rushed to wrap her arms around the angel. She enjoyed the warmth and power emanating from her celestial friend. “What are you doing here?” she asked.

“This pipsqueak created a bit of a disturbance when he decided to pop down for a visit,” Destefana replied. “His boss is concerned he’s too soft. I’m concerned he’s a fucking little liar.”

Amber giggled. “If people knew that angels drop F-bombs …”

The angel laughed. “Child, you know us, we’re the ones who created the language after having to chase after all these human asses down here. Although I’ve got to say, it’s a lot easier to manage for the moment.”

“You’re welcome,” Djali quipped.

“Shut up!” Amber and Destefana commanded in unison.

The demon flinched and took a couple more steps back. “Obviously, I’m no longer welcome in this conversation. I really am pleased to see everyone’s doing well, though. Maybe you could find a way to let them know that.” A warm breeze accompanied his quiet departure, blowing Amber’s hair back for a moment.

“He’s a complicated little one,” Destefana said. “But you’ve no worry from him or anyone up the chain. All’s good here.”

Amber smiled. “It’s nice to know you’re watching.”

Destefana reached out and pulled Amber close. “You make me happy,” the angel said softly. “You make the universe happy. Now, get back in there with your friends before they start to miss you.”

Amber nodded and smiled as another gust of wind took her friend to another plane of reality. Walking back into the diner, the conversations momentarily paused as she returned to her seat.

“Everything okay?” Reesie asked.

“Damn near next to perfect,” Amber said with a smile. “For all the hell we all went through, for everything we lost, you guys are just wonderful.”

Natalie leaned over and whispered, “Why is it you always have a bit of a glow to you after you have those mysterious conversations? You never have explained any of that to me and it’s still one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever witnessed.”

Amber smiled. “That’s another story for another time,” she whispered in return. “And not one suitable for children’s ears.”

“Always an excuse,” Nat teased.

The conversation returned to normal as the group chatted back and forth about everything that had changed and what they were doing to adjust to their new reality. While challenges continued, their shared experience had given them all the courage and confidence to step up to each new difficulty and find a solution. They knew they could survive no matter what was thrown at them.

Perhaps, most importantly, they had learned that complete strangers could become friends, that differences in background and culture, skin color and sexuality, were too often nothing more than defensive mechanisms people use to avoid getting close, risk the potential of getting hurt, and making new friends. It was a lesson they shared and applied wherever they went. They each told the story to whoever would listen. They not only survived the Great Extinction, but they were also better for having done so.

And for the most part, they were happy.

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