Jake sat at the kitchen table nursing a cup of coffee. It was six in the morning. His wife Amy sat across from him. His step-children Aaron and Julia also sat at the table. He could see the look in their eyes. They were all a little frightened by him. The old man had gone crazy.
He repeated himself for the third time, a little softer this time. “I just think we should stay home today and just wait things out for a bit.”
Amy had her arms crossed. She was having none of it. “The schools are not closed. They have exams today. Aaron has a track meet this afternoon. We can’t just hide, Jake.”
“By the time the schools are closed we’ll see more of the outbreak. Anyone could get exposed at the school, or at your work, Amy. This is deadly stuff. Deadly.”
She shook her head. “The CDC has said on TV — we just watched it — that they don’t think the disease has reached American shores. We should not panic. You are panicking, Jake.”
Jake frowned and looked into his coffee mug. He was still feeling the jackhammer from the day before, and he was feeling his age, too. Just shy of 50, his build had gotten soft in the last few years with all the office work. Right now he felt soft enough to melt right into the kitchen chair.
Maybe he was acting crazy. Maybe he was just overreacting. He didn’t want to look foolish to his wife and kids. What if they stayed home for weeks and weeks and still no outbreak? That’s what she had said. Then what?
“Amy, kids, look. I’m sorry. I’m not trying to scare you. I just want to be careful. I used to work in a hospital, I know how slow they are to recognize and respond to these sorts of things.”
Aaron was quiet. He bit his lip. Jake could see the look in his eyes. Of the three, even more so than Amy, Aaron was the reader and thinker. He had a room full of science fiction books, a telescope, science awards.
“Aaron, you’re in AP biology. You know what a pandemic is, right?”
Aaron shook his head. “We talked about this at school, in Mr. Wright’s class. There have been big disease outbreaks before. Like . . . in the middle ages and stuff.”
Jake pointed his finger at Aaron. “That’s right, and back in 1918.”
Aaron grinned and ticked off a list of books he’d read. The Stand. The Andromeda Strain. Earth Abides. I am Legend.
Amy butted in. “Jake, this is nuts. You were a manager at a hospital, not a doctor, not even a nurse. You seriously think you know better than the CDC? Really?”
Jake turned to face her. “Amy, I know you’re scared. I know this messes up all of our plans for the day. But I want you and the kids to stay home. We’ll watch the news together. If nothing turns up by tomorrow, I’ll eat crow. Please? One day.”
Amy was a sales manager at a car dealership. Hard driven. Tough. They’d been married three years — a rushed thing, really. He loved Aaron and Julia, and they him, but it was awkward with Amy at times. His role had always seemed to be as step-father, not father. She’d been a single mom so long it was easy for her to take charge. He’d found it better to be patient and not try to butt heads with her too much.
“Okay, Jake,” Amy said, smiling. “Here’s the deal. We stay home today, and your theory doesn’t work out, then you put in the pool we’ve been talking about.”
Jake grinned. “Deal.”
Amy looked over at the kids. “What do you guys think?”
Julia smiled. She was an easy sell. “Psssh. Well, yeah, I hate math. No test for me today. I’m going back to bed.” She started to wander back upstairs and then stopped. “Do we have to tell anybody? It’s kinda crazy. No offense, Jake.”
Jake waved his hand. “None taken.”
Amy took a sip of coffee and brushed a wisp of blond hair back from her face. She was a fit forty-year-old, youthful looking, a gym rat, and it showed. “No, we’ll just say we weren’t feeling well. Let’s just sleep in. I’ll make us lunch later. We can play some board games or something.”
Aaron loved board games. “Yeah, let’s play Axis and Allies!”
Amy moaned. “No, I hate that one. How about Monopoly?”
“That’s lame, mom. How about Risk? Jake likes that one.” Aaron took off to his room.
Julia had already gone. She was going through “stuff” and had been emotionally removed from the family for weeks. Just a typical moody teenager, Jake thought. But he was happy that he’d bought some time, and that the family was not too upset. Let’s just forget about it and have a play day, he thought. They needed a distraction from his increasing sense of doom and gloom over the last few days. Maybe he did as well.
“We aren’t done yet.” Jake said, as he stood and walked over to Amy, smiling.
“Oh?” Amy said, smiling up at him, coffee cup in hand. She was obviously proud of her trade. Actually, it occurred to him that he’d won on both accounts. He had fleeting images of Amy sunning by the pool all summer.
He leaned down and gave her a gentle kiss. “If I lose, you get a swimming pool. But what if I win?” He was already imagining some quality time with Amy later that day. The male libido, he had to admit, knew no restriction or limitations, had no regard for logic or reason — not even the end of the world could chain it.
Amy look puzzled, and then it dawned on him what he had just said. She read his expression and quick as a cat said, “If you win Jake, we all lose.”
* * *
Laura Harris gunned the truck and pushed her way into the parking lot of the local IGA. She’d never seen it this busy. Not on the day before or after Thanksgiving. Not on Christmas Eve. Every slot was filled, and all the rows were filled with cars. People were honking, screaming, yelling. Cars could not back out and leave, nor could they move forward or backward in the rows. There must have been 400 cars in a lot made for 50.
Laura was a small framed woman with gently graying brown hair. She kept it pulled back neatly, and that, plus her glasses gave her a very studious look. She might have passed for a librarian or school teacher. That suited her because she was nothing like that. She was a farm girl. She’d spent most of her youth driving tractors, four-wheelers, and riding horses. She could handle the big SUV easily, and as a tomboy, she could fight and wrestle with the best of ‘em when she was younger. Her oldest boy, Karl, a strapping teenager who was sitting nervously in the seat next to her, had told his friends once when he thought she wasn’t around, “I’m not afraid of my dad. He’s a teddy bear. Mom. She’s beast.”
Laura had enjoyed that description. Beast. She did have a temper, and it was beginning to show. She laid on the horn. The traffic was not moving and she was half out in the street. It would take an hour just to get into the store, and by that time, judging by the crowd, there’d be nothing left. “Hold on,” she said through clinched teeth.
She steered the Suburban around a car and then jumped the curb, plowed through median, a rose bush, and into the adjacent lot where, curiously, no one was parking. She shut down the vehicle and turned to look in the back seat.
Her elderly father and mother were holding each other tightly, disoriented and afraid.
“Is everything okay, dear?” her father said. “What’s all the ruckus?”
Sitting next to them was Tommy, her younger son, age twelve. “Don’t worry grandpa, we just hit a pothole.”
Laura spoke. “Mike says the power may be out for a very long time, so I’m going in to get a few things. Karl’s going to help me. You stay here. Keep the doors locked. Don’t get out.” She looked over at Karl, who was forcing himself to look tough. She appreciated the effort, which meant he understood it was going to get a little dicey from here on out.
“Tommy, here’s the cell. Call your dad if anything happens.”
“Daddy, you and mom sit still, okay?” He father nodded that he understood. He was nearly 90, frail and in bad health. In his younger years he had stood on the farm like a giant, but now he was a mere shadow of that man. He had kept his senses, but he was not the scrapper he once had been. The rest home was nice and all, but she suspected it had beaten him into submission.
Never mind all that. It was up to her and Karl now. “Ready?”
Karl nodded, and they left the suburban. As soon as they got out she could hear the yelling at the front of the store from across the parking lot. She also heard the vehicle’s doors lock.
“Karl, we have to get in there and get some basics. We have meat at home, and some canned goods, but I meant to go shopping earlier this week. We don’t have a lot to spare, and with my parents with us, it’s going to get thin very quick.”
Karl nodded. “What do we do?” He was standing tall, trying to look bigger than he was.
“Let’s just see what’s going on out front.”
As they neared the front doors she could see a short, skinny police officer standing on his car bumper. He was motioning people back and telling them in a high-pitched voice to “just calm down!” He would have had no effect on the crowd at all, she suspected, had it not been for the pump shotgun. That had their attention.
“Now you just calm down and get in line. No pushing or shoving,” the officer said. He was flustered, but making an effort. It seemed to be working, for now.
Laura and Karl walked to the end of the line. There were people coming in behind them very quickly, but the line was more orderly in front of her and slowly filing into the store.
Once inside she could see the cashiers were overwhelmed. No one was working the floor, people were dragging items off the shelves with their whole arm, just swiping it into their carts. There were no free carts either, not even a small hand basket.
Laura navigated swiftly through the crowd, completely bypassing the canned food aisle, which was swamped. She skipped the cereal aisle, too, and the cookies and snack cakes, and moved straight into the baking aisle.
She grabbed the big bags of flour on the bottom shelf. There were only two of the twenty pound bags of flour. She chunked them into Karl’s arms and then piled on top of them smaller bags of salt and sugar. Karl was struggling, but he seemed to be managing it so far. She then directed them to the dry beans, and carried as much of that as she could. They made their way to the front. She spied a store worker unloading bottled water from a flat bed stock cart. She shoved the last of the water off the cart with her foot and dropped her beans on the cart.
“Hey, lady!” the young man said. Shoppers were pushing at each other to get to the bottled water. He turned to grab the cart, but Karl came up and dropped his armload on the cart, too. The two boys recognized each other.
“Hey, Kurt. This is my mom. We just need this for a minute. We’ll bring it right back.”
Kurt looked at him, shrugged, and said, “Okay, man. I got another one in the back. This place is crazy! You know? Crazy!”
Laura grabbed the cart and headed back to the staples aisle, which was fast filling up. She grabbed anything she could get, yelling at Karl to protect the cart. Between the two of them they were able to grab a few other items, some rice, noodles, oil, before it became clear they had about all they could manage and were in danger of losing it.
They began pushing through the crowd again, heading toward the checkers. A big man with a beard in a sleeveless shirt came up and started to grab a large bag of beans off the top of the cart. He glared at her as if to say, “Don’t even say a word.”
Karl saw it and stepped back just in time, blocking the man from the food with his body. The man stepped back and stiffened, as if he were going to shove Karl, but Laura pivoted away and said sharply, “Come on Karl, watch where you are going!”
She then saw Earl Carruthers, the elderly manager of the IGA. She’d shopped there for years and knew him well. He looked white as a ghost. He saw her face, a friendly face, and came to her.
“Oh, Laura, what has the world come to? Do you see these people? They aren’t even acting like human beings.” He gestured at the snatching, arguing, and pushing that was going on all around him.
Laura patted his arm. “Everyone’s just scared, Earl. The news reports say the dam exploded, the power is out in some parts of the county, and that’s spreading. We’ve got that disease thing cropping up overseas. People are spooked, Earl.”
Earl nodded and then looked down at the stock cart.
“We couldn’t find anymore shopping carts, so Kurt let us use this one,” Karl blurted out.
Earl smiled. “Laura you take this and get out of here. Get home, you can pay me back later.”
Laura was so relieved she hugged him. He smiled and patted her arm. “Get on out of here, girl. I know you are good for it.”
With Karl in the lead they bulled through the crowd that was coming in, Earl right behind in case anyone stopped them. Just out of the doors she saw trouble. The bearded man was there, and he had a friend. A woman was shrieking at him. Her cart was knocked over and her food spread all over the ground.
The two men were laughing at her. “Shut up, lady. Get the hell out of here,” they said, snatching items off the ground. Laura was shocked to see that several men were in line, but they weren’t helping. No one said a word. They just looked straight ahead and ignored the woman and her pleas.
Just as Laura decided to chance it and sweep quickly by them, hoping the man had forgotten Karl and her, she heard a nasally voice yell “Freeze!”
She saw the police officer approaching through the crowd, shotgun pointed at the two men. Unfortunately, since she was behind them, that meant the scattergun was pointed right at her and Karl as well.
Go on to The Sheriff of Stone County, part One,
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