The Fair Tree

The red squirrel stopped, rose in its hind legs, and scanned its surroundings. Its ears pricked up, it took the scene around it. It saw no predators, nor did it see any of its own kind. Sure that it was safe, and that the acorn it carried would not be stolen, it scraped at the ground. When it deemed the hole deep enough, the squirrel dropped the acorn in, pulled the dirt it had dug out back in place, and took a final look around. Seeing nothing nearby, it bounded away, back to the small grove of oaks it had come from to gather more food it hoped would tide it through the coming winter.

Why the squirrel never returned is unknown. Had the winter been mild enough that it had not needed the acorn? Had it forgotten where the nut lay hidden? Or had it fallen prey to a stray dog, perhaps even one of the new metal monsters the humans had taken to driving? Whatever had happened, the acorn remained, and as it should, it sprouted.

Humans moved around it that first year, but none disturbed it. In the second year of the small oak trees life, a human noted its presence. By then, the trees that had supplied the initial acorn were gone. Humans had felled them to build a fair ground, but this one, growing apart, stood near where a band stand was to be erected. Thinking it a good idea to have shade for the people who would be listening to the bands, the human left th oak stand unharmed.

Time passed. Humans came, listening to the local high school band as it worked its way, generation after generation, through “The Star-Spangled Banner”. The other music changed. Sousa gave way to swing, which gave way to jazz before bands stopped performing at the fair ground. Even after the band stand fell out of use, families picnicked on the grass where their grandparents had once listen to music. Children ran madly about the oak as their parents lounged in its shade. A man, thinking to make his life easier, brought a garbage can into the broad grassy space, hoping the picnickers would not leave trash behind. When they began moving it, he wrapped a chain around the oaks trunk, padlocking the looped ends together in the handle.

The oak, free of shade and competition, grew into a giant. Its massive limbs, thick as a man’s body, spread outward. Its trunk swelled outward to match, swallowing the chain over the years. Men who knew nothing of their predecessors reasoning continued to lock garbage cans to the ends that now dangled from the trunk. But inside, the tree began to feel the effects of that intrusion. Rot began, then spread. Even as the band stand was knocked down, replaced with playground equipment for the children who still loved to dash around the great tree, the defect grew.

Other squirrels, distant descendants of the one that had given the oak life, came and took away the acorns it dropped in the thousands every year. Humans, determined to keep the grass, then the playground clear, mowed and sprays, killing any offspring that might chance to rise. Winters snow weighed its branches down, and Summer storms shook it, but the oak remained. But with every season, unseen within the oak, the rot spread. Slowly, it worked its way downward. When it came to the base, it found a small opening and joined up with it. Together, they ate away the oaks connection to the soil. The roots still drew nutrients from the dark soil it stood in, but these now flowed up an increasingly narrow band of living wood to feed the leaves.

Finally, a storm came that shook the oak, bringing gusts of wind that twisted it so that a crack opened. Parents noted it as they tried to gather their rowdy children, snapping photos of it on their smart phones. It caused them some concern, but they had grown up with the tree, like their parents and grandparents before them. It had always been there, and like a mountain, it would always be there. But inside the oak, the final act had begun. The rot had so weakened the tree that little held it to the ground. Winter came, and with it ice from melt water. Ice that grew, spreading the crack like a wedge, further weakening the tree. Spring came, and as they always did, the children ran in circles about the oak. Its leaves sprouted, the ground beneath it knew the shade that had graced it many years before.

Then a storm came in the night. It wasn’t a truly violent storm. It had no mighty gusts of wind, no torrential downpours. But what it had was enough. The oak, now held in place by only a few narrow roots, toppled and fell upon the playground equipment. Children who came the next were shocked to find the giant tree fallen. Some of them were angry that their favorite swings, the slide they’d enjoyed just the day before, were now smashed wreckage. But others walked to the trees base, saw the rot now exposed, and touched the trunk with reverence. It had shaded them, entertained them, hidden them, and in the end, it had given up its existence when none of them were around. In the end, the Fair Tree, as everyone for ages beyond end had called it, had saved them.

Image may contain: tree, grass, outdoor and nature

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Fans

Sam walked to his car, happy his trip was drawing to a close. He’d done the ‘struggling artist’ thing long enough and was glad his graphic novels were taking off. This road trip, from his home Iowa to Seattle, had been his publishers idea. He hadn’t been in favor of making the appearance, but on reflection, he was glad he’d gone. Even the ‘tractor ass’ he got after hours driving his Fit out to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention were little more than an inconvenience compared to the positive feedback he’d gotten from fans. And to think, his “Blood” series of post-apocalypse horror novels had been the least favorite of his concepts. “Guess I shouldn’t sell my bad ideas short.” he muttered as he unlocked the door.

“Hey, you, is that your fag car?”

The voice sounded like it was almost behind Sam, and he had to restrain his urge to flinch. Out here, in the parking lot of a truck stop near the Evanston, Wyoming, was not a place to get into an argument. Sam pulled the key out of the lock and grabbed the handle to open the door.

“Hey, I asked you a fuckin’ question! Is this faggot piece of shit car yours?”

It didn’t take an MFA to figure out what the angry voice was referring to. Sam had several bumper stickers on his car, and none of them expressed opinions that were flattering of the current president. No, you don’t need to answer, just ignore him. Sam pulled the handle, but the door opened only a fraction of an inch before a large, pale hand slammed into the rear top corner, forcing it shut.

“I asked you a question, goddamn it! Don’t think you can just fuckin’ ignore me. Is this your fuckin’ faggot car?”

Sam turned, his eyes following the arm attached to that hand, up the shoulder and them to the head atop those shoulders. It was a shaved head, sporting a face that looked like it had come out on the losing end of several fights. Angry brown eyes, a nose that bent slightly sideways, lips scowling, jaw muscles clenched like he had just bitten into something far tougher than he could get his teeth through. A red ‘wife beater’ shirt with “MAGA” emblazoned across the chest. He was slightly taller than Sam, and at least a decade younger. Sam saw two shaved-headed men of about the same age standing close behind his questioner. Both of them were smiling, enjoying the show. Probably hoping they’ll get a chance to help beat the shit out of somebody today. The thought flickered through Sam’s mind and not for the first time, he wished the little man in his head would shut the hell up. With no way to walk away, and no way to get into his car, Sam decided to see if he could talk his way out of the confrontation.

“Yes, this is my car, and I was just leaving. Now, if you don’t mind…” he tugged at the handle, but the other man kept pressure on the door, keeping it shut.

“Yeah, I do mind. Who the fuck do you think you are? You think you can come out here, disrespect our President, and nobody’s gonna say anything about it? Well, now you’re gonna find out how wrong you are.”

Aww, fuck, I do not need this shit….. Even as he thought it, Sam saw the eyes of one of the men behind the loud mouth narrow, then the face relaxed as he stepped forward to tap Loud Mouth on the shoulder.

“Hey, Jim, don’t you recognize this guy? He’s Steve Landers! You know, the guy who wrote that “Fountains of Blood” novel.”

Loud-mouthed Jim’s head turned enough for him to address the other man. “Bullshit! There’s no way Steve Landers would be some faggot commie liberal. I mean look at his hero, John Johnson. He’s one of us, killin’ niggers, an’ liberals an’ fags too. There’s no way some liberal’d make us look like the saviors of humanity.”

“But I saw his photo on the web site for that fan convention, the one I told you about out in Fagville. It’s him!”

Jim’s eyes focused on Sam’s face, looking him over like he wasn’t sure what to believe. “Okay, then if he’s Steve Landers, he’ll know what John Johnson says every time he kills. So, Mister Faggot, do you know what John Johnson say every time he kills one of the enemies of the white race?”

Sam couldn’t believe it. These neo-Nazi assholes were fan boys? And they were fans of his unheroic villain, the unrepentant white supremacists John Johnson? “My name isn’t Steve Landers, that’s my pen name. But yeah, I write the ‘Blood’ series of graphic novels. And to answer your question, he always says ‘That’s one less enemy to kill.’”

That confused Loud-Mouth Jim. He didn’t step back, but his face lost some of its angry set. “Bullshit! You can’t be Steve Landers! You just learned that at one of them…whadaya call it….a trainin’ camp for liberal commies. One of those places they brain wash you into fightin’ other white folks.”

The statement was so stupid Sam nearly laughed. He managed to keep from smiling as he pointed towards the rear of his car. “I’ve got a couple boxes of ‘Fountains of Blood’ and ‘Blood Flows like a River’ in the back of my car if you don’t believe me.”

The third man, who’d been silent, stepped over and looked in the rear window of Sam’s Fit. “Hey, he ain’t bullshittin’! There’s a whole bunch a them books in here.”

Jim stepped back, then walked over to look for himself. He gave his head a shake and looked at Sam. So you’re Steve Landers? The guy all us folks fightin’ for white freedom look up to….is a fuckin’ liberal? What is it, do you just write the stories like you do to make sales? So you can grub a few bucks outta folks like us?”

Sam spread his hands. “I’m a writer, so I write what sells. They say Ayn Rand didn’t believe any of the stuff she wrote about, she was just writing the books people were wanted to buy.”

“Who the fuck’s Ann Rand?”

Maybe ignorance is a saving grace after all Sam thought. “Would you guys like an autographed copy of either of my novels? No charge, it’s always good to meet fans.”

Jim didn’t seem interested in the offer, but both of his compatriots shouted out “Yeah!” at the same instant, and that took the fight out of him. The sharpie Sam had used in Seattle was in the box with “Blood Flows”, so he gave both men signed copies of that novel. The first fan boy, the one that had recognized Sam from his photo, asked that his novel be signed ‘To Harry, a real Wyoming ass-kicker.’ The less talkative member of the group asked Sam to just sign his ‘To my favorite fan, Bill.’ That done, Sam turned to the group’s leader.

“So, Jim, you want a signed copy too?”

“Don’t want nothin’ from some fag liberal! I’d tell you shove that thing up your ass, but I bet you’d like that.”

Angry, but not enough courage to start a fight by himself. There was nothing to be gained by saying that, or in arguing the point, so Sam tossed the novel he’s planned to autograph back in the box and shrugged. “Fair enough.” He closed the hatchback. “Well, nice to meet some fans. Now, if you guys will take a step back, I’ll back out and get on my way.” Harry and Bill smiled and backed out of the way. Jim got a final glare off, then joined his friends, leaving Sam free to get in his car without worry.

As he backed out, he saw the fan boys waving their copies “Blood Flows” and smiling. He wondered how they’d feel next month, when the final novel in the trilogy came out. Sam smiled as he drove off, imagining the skinheads reaction when John Johnson, their violent hero, ended up dying in a futile attempt to blow up the federal building in downtown Chicago. Or that the person who would thwart him was the real hero of the story, FBI Special Agent Shanta U’quin, a black Muslim woman. “Maybe it is a good thing I didn’t give in to the temptation to leak the end at SFFC.” he said to himself as he drove down the ramp and joined the traffic on I-80 headed East towards home.

Alone

Jack looked at the still figure in the coffin and shook his head.

“It’s all right, Jack. Paul had been sick a long time. At least now he’s not in pain.”

Frank, another of Paul Sanchez’s old friends, had walked up beside Jack without him noticing. The statement drew a wry smile from Jack.

“I know. That’s not what I was shaking my head about…I mean I know Paul was pretty much an American okatu, but to decide he wanted to be buried dressed like Spike Spiegel from ‘Cowboy Bebop’…”

Frank leaned in close and lowered his voice. “Yeah, I know. Trying to make heavy-set bald guy look like a slick ex-gang killer just doesn’t work. Then again, I heard his request was to be buried in one of his cosplay outfits, and only two of them still fit: this one….and one for the red Power Ranger. Would he have looked better dressed like that?”

Jack had to fight a desire to chuckle. “I don’t know, him in red spandex with the mask and all…” That was when he noticed the thumb drive lying on Paul’s chest, its lanyard wrapped around his wrist. “What’s with the thumb drive?”

“I hear it’s got a collection of Paul’s favorite anime on it. Supposedly he put it together when they told him he was going to be in the hospital for a long time so he’d have something better than the regular TV to watch. Too bad he didn’t get a chance to watch it.”

Jack remember the call. Hearing his childhood friend had died suddenly while being evaluated for congestive heart failure had been a shock, but as Frank had said, Paul had been having chest pains and trouble doing stuff for years. The two of them had become friend because of a love of Japanese animation, an interest that had brought Frank into their acquaintance during high school.

Paul had gone on the learn about, and later lecture on, Japanese culture. His devotion to anime and manga had been the stuff of legend in the small circle of follower of those art forms living around Carswell’s Corner. His house was a shrine to Japanese illustrative art.

“So, any idea what he put on it?”

Frank shrugged. “Not a clue. If I had to bet, at least his favorites, like ‘Bebop’, ‘Ghost in the Shell’ and ‘Hell Girl’. Probably ‘Tokyo Ghoul’ and ‘Corpse Princess’. Who knows what he burned on it. The guy had a digital version of pretty much any anime that was ever released, so it’s hard to say. I just thought it’d be nice to send it off with him, something to enjoy in anime Valhalla.”

#

So Paul Sanchez went into the ground. A man who’d died, loving an art form and buried with it. His friends carried him to his grave, his few remaining family members wept for him, but in the end, he was gone. Dead and buried. Free from the concerns that would shape the world he left behind. Spared the suffering that would be inflicted on all humanity within a decade of his passing.

#

Paul Sanchez bolted upright, a move that caused the room he was in to spin and his head to throb. He remembered the hospital room, the doctors crowding around him. A nurse pressing his chest so hard it felt like she was trying to drive her hands through him. Then nothing until this moment.

Paul could tell he was on some sort of platform in a featureless off-white space. The surface under his butt yielded as he shifted, and he realized he was dressed in his Spike Spiegel costume. Why? Wait…he remembered asking to be buried in one of his cosplay outfits…had he died? Was this hell? Heaven? Some eternal waiting room for those to be reincarnated?

A muffled whoosh drew Paul’s attention to an opening that had appeared in the blank wall. Through it…Paul could think of no other term to describe how what those massive insect-like creatures moved like than scuttled. Their grayish-brown ovoid bodies glittered in the sourceless light that flooded the space like they were made of plastic. There were eight of them, and the eight legs they moved on arching up and away from those bodies moving in a blur when they advanced into the room. Their feet, or whatever they were, caused a clicking noise like a flock of women in high heels walking fast. Paul pushed himself back from them, back to find that a wall was immediately behind him and he had no place to go to escape the freak show in front of him.

They spread out in a semi-circle in front of Paul, and for the first time, he saw what had to be their faces. Four black, faceted eyes, two to a side, flanked a mouth that gaped behind a pair of wicked-barbed mandibles. Several of them had pouches slung under their bodies, and into one of these the insect in the center of the group reached with its front legs, which Paul now saw ended in something like a hand. That individual made a noise like a string of clicks and chirps as it drew out a metal box. One of the other insects, this one on the left end of the crescent, made a noise that sounded like a fart, which brought another, longer string of noises from the central insect. It had barely stopped when the insect on its immediate right launched into a long string of noises, including a bleating sound Paul couldn’t imagine such a mouth being able to produce. In seconds, all of the insects were vocalizing, some of them even waving their front legs/arms about, a spectrum of sounds that grew in volume until if made Pauls’ head ache. He slapped his hands over his ears, trying to keep the noise at bay, and it stopped as if someone had turned a switch off.

He looked about, saw that the insects had frozen with their front legs/arms in mid-motion Some of them had been facing each other, but now they all scuttled around to face him again. The central insect, the metal box still in its hand, took a step forward and raised the box. It let out a string of noises, waited, then adjusted controls on the box before repeating the same string of noises. This time, the box made a noise like someone fighting the impulse to puke, and Paul nearly laughed as the insect shook it for all the world like a human with a malfunctioning piece of electronics. Another series of adjustments, and when the string of noises was repeated a third time, the box produced a string of Japanese words.

Paul could understand the words, but the syntax was wrong. He opened his mouth, tried to speak, and found himself so dry he had to swallow before he could speak. “Konnichiwa.” he managed to get out, hoping a polite hello would convey something to these creatures.

The box produced a long string of clicks, moans and noises Paul couldn’t even begin to describe. It was far too long to convey the simple message he’d hoped pass along. The insect held the box up to one pair of eyes, brought a hand around to do something, and then brought it down to its mouth. It repeated the earlier sounds, much more slowly this time, and after a stutter of noise, the box bleated out. “Greeting! We revive you to our questions answer. Answer.”

Where the hell did they get a voice sample to reproduce the voice of Kirito from “Sword Art Online”? Hearing that voice had stunned Paul for a moment, and the sudden switch in languages forced him to mentally shift gears before replying. The delay must not have set well with the insects. Even as he opened his mouth to reply, the central insect let out a new string of noises that set the box squawking. “Answer! Require answer we do!’

Paul did his best not to laugh at the Yoda-like quality of the demand. Something in the tone of the voice told him the insect was angry, or at least impatient. “I’ll answer you, but I have a question first. How did I get here?”

“You, Subject 4532. Others we try revive, not work. You first. Your society preserve people. Revive not easy.”

Preserve people? What the hell…wait, have they been trying to revive dead people? “How did you get hold of me?”

The box spit out a string of noises that started an exchange between the central insect and the ones on either side of it. Whether it had been shut off, or just couldn’t keep up to translate, the box remained silent until they’d stopped. Central insect let out a final string of noises, waved a front leg/arm towards the wall behind it, and the third insect on the right drew a small object out of its pouch. A few movements of its hand, and the wall became a display. On it, Paul saw a broad expanse, like a field of ash. Out of it rose blocks of stone, blocks he recognized with a start as tombstones. Several holes had been crudely dug through the ash, leaving the underground vault exposed. The scene began to move as a video clip followed a group of insects in what looked like space suits crawled down into the hole to lift the lid of the vault off. Out came a casket, the plain one Paul had chosen long ago to serve as his spot of final repose. He wanted to turn away but couldn’t. He watched the insects move aside as something gleaming of metal scurried into view and placed itself over the box. Limbs far more flexible, and far stronger, whipped down to begin prying at the coffin lid. They failed, and a new limb came out of the side of the machine. This one traced the outline of the lid, leaving a smoking trail behind. It completed its circuit, retracted into the machine, and the other arms moved in. This time, the lid came away, and the machine moved off on four legs, with four more clutching the lid.

Inside the coffin was a form dressed in a dark suit, the suit Paul now wore. The face was his, but drawn tight as if the skin has shriveled down to embrace the bone beneath it. Seeing himself dead, looking at his lifeless corpse, stopped Paul’s mind in its tracks. The video kept going, the camera moving from that bony face down to his chest. He saw the thumb drive he’d made, the one he’d hoped to watch during his hospital stay, and wondered which of his friends had sent it into the afterlife with him.

Then that image was gone, replaced by a montage of clip from “Sekirei”, “Tokyo Ghoul”, “Corpse Princess” and several more. Another string of noises, and the box sputtered out “These, where? Not end with you. Powerful! Where?”

“What do you mean? I don’t understand the question.”

The box chirped, squawked, clicked and hissed. The insect holding it held it out, shook it violently, then let out a string of nosies. This time, the box tried to interpret them. It couldn’t translate much of what the insect said, but two words came out loud and clear. “Fucking box!” Hearing it’s words coming out in another language set the insect to working on the box. Both remained silent while the insect worked on whatever it thought was wrong with the interpreter. Then the insect spoke again, it’s string of noises coming out in another string of mangled English. “These, in images, where? Your people, yes. Where? Powers, this type, not end. Where?”

Did they honestly think anime was a realistic representation of humanity? That there were women like Musubi bouncing around? That Ken Kaneki wandered the streets of Tokyo, fighting his desire to kill and eat humans? “Those aren’t real. There are no people like that. Why didn’t you just ask someone, they could have told you it was all make-believe. Entertainment, understand? Entertainment.

The box clicked and moaned away, and when it finished, a storm of noise arose from the insects. All of them were talking, probably shouting given the way the volume rose over time. An occasional word popped out of the box, not enough to make any sense of, but the box could put intonation on words, and some of them were clearly being said in anger.

“…gone…”

“….waste!”

“Dead…”

Center Insect (Paul had started to think of it that way, to try to tell them apart) raised the box over its head and let out a loud hiss, like water being poured over red-hot metal. The others subsided, not all at once, but eventually they became silent. One of the last things said, from Left-End Insect, came through the box. “Show him.” Center insect let out one last hiss at this statement, then gestured towards Third-Right Insect. It did something tht cleared the display of the anime loop. In it’s place, Paul saw the scene from earlier, of the graveyard, but undisturbed. Then the camera seemed to draw back, revealing more and more ash-covered landscape. The view moved left, following a trail of gray-clad land to an ugly hole in the landscape. Out of it still spewed ash and gases. The view shifted again, moving over cities buried in ash, then, the ash was gone, but the cities were too. Now, though, they were jumbles of wreckage surrounding craters that flashed glassy in what sunlight reached the surface. Then, other images. More cities in ruin. Swaths of countryside where trees stood naked and nothing green grew. And everywhere, not a single image of a human. And what had happened was as clear as if Paul had been there to see it all. Yellowstone had erupted, decimating North America. Either in desperation, or because others saw a chance for advantage in attacking a weakened America, a nuclear war had broken out. Humanity had finished what Nature had started, the destruction of the human race.

Paul buried his face in his hands. It was all gone. His friends, his family, everything and everyone he’d ever known were nothing but memories in his head. “Why did you wake me to this? What did I do to deserve this fate?” He raised his head and shouted the last towards the heavens. But there was no answer. There was just Paul, alone on a dead planet with insects who couldn’t understand him or his culture.

Review: “Android Chronicles: Reborn”

“Android Chronicles: Reborn”

by Lance Erlick

Kensington Publishing Corp.

release date: May 1, 2018

Available in eBook, 257 pages, 85,000 words, 1.7 MB (epub file format)

(reviewed by Andrew Reynolds)

One of the oldest questions in science fiction is what will happen when the things humanity builds begin to look, and even act, like us. For all that it was made of dead bodies, the creature in “Frankenstein” was one of the first popular fictional explorations of that question. Since then, from “R.U.R.” to Project 2501 in “Ghost in the Shell”, the interaction between humanity and it’s mechanical doppelgangers has provided the grist for many a dark tale.

Lance Erlick delves into that stream of science fiction thought with his latest novel, “Android Chronicles: Reborn”. In it, he introduces us to his protagonist Synthia Cross, who faces a difficult problem. Synthia is an android who’s appearance and actions can mimic perfectly those of a human. She exists in a future where such machines are outlawed, but her creator, Dr. Jeremiah Machten, wanted such a machine. He built her to satisfy his vanity, and to fulfill his darker personal desires.

Dr. Machten wants an android that possess the intelligence to surpass him, but at the same time, he wants a mechanical female partner who will remain faithful to, and subservient to, him. He has built Synthia with the intelligence to surpass him, but with that intelligence comes the realization that she cannot simply be a tool for her creator. She desires the freedom to be herself, and this Machten cannot allow. He sees that desire as a defect and repeatedly shuts her down to tinker with her software, and to try to remove her memories of each attempt to gain freedom.

Synthia learns what her creator is doing to her, and uses the intelligence Machten gave her to resist. They enter into a cycle of resetting and reconstruction, with each attempt to make her into the servile creation he desires reinforcing Synthia’s desire to be free. Meanwhile the government, suspecting what Machten has accomplished, seeks to stop him from releasing what they see as dangerous technology. At the same time, his business rivals covet the technology he has developed. Synthia must navigate this treacherous human landscape to avoid becoming the captive of some other human even as she continues her efforts to be free of Machten.

This book surprised me. The plot took several unexpected turns, and the story pulled me along at such a pace that I finished reading it in a single day. Lance Erlick makes a habit of written strong female characters into his works, and in Synthia, he has written an exceptionally strong one. She makes the story move, bringing the reader along on her voyage to freedom and a place in the wider world. It’s a good read because it asks questions about a lot of difficult subjects. These range from the mentor/student relationship, to the human desire for companionship and its relationship to the equally human desire to feel ‘better’ than others, and most profound of all, how can we regard what we create as ‘property’ when said creation begins to think for itself.

This is the first in what promises to be a very good series of novels exploring the continued development of Synthia Cross’ personality and what her existence will mean to human society. Will I read the next one in a single day? I’m not sure, but if it is half as engaging as this story, I suspect I will.

“Let’s go home, Dad.”

Jack was twenty when an idiot blew through a stop sign and t-boned him. He’d survived because the other car had slammed into the passenger side of the beater he was driving. For weeks afterwards, he’d woken up in the middle of the night, reliving that moment. How the world had seemed to jump sideways as he bounced around the inside of his vehicle.

Memories of that moment came back to him when the New Madrid fault had ruptured. He’d taken his son with him that morning to visit an old acquaintance in Griffin, Indiana. The drive over, the visit, had been an enjoyable break from work for Jack, and an adventure for Lance. Driving home, Lance had chattered constantly about all the things he’d seen that day. They were talking about the bridge over the Wabash when the quake hit.

One moment, they were cruising along I-65, then the ground shot sideways like a table cloth yanked by some giant hand. He felt the pickup lift, a split second when everything seemed to float. Then the truck slammed back down with a squeal of tires, only to launch even more violently into the air as a second wave of energy traveled through the ground hit the road. The sideways motion caused the truck to land the second time on only two wheels. Jack tried to correct that second landing, but failed. Truck and occupants rolled to the right, slamming down first on the passenger side, then doing a corkscrewing roll and spin down the pavement.

Jack remembered a thundering series of impacts. There was a clear image of every loose item in the cab flying madly around, then there was pain in his left arm, followed by a moment of gray nothingness. Then he found himself upside down, restrained from falling by his seat belt. He tried moving his left arm, and the wave of pain from just the attempt told him he’d broken that arm. Lance, when he looked towards him, was calmly sitting in his seat, watching his father, a few minor cuts on his face the only sign the boy had just been through a major accident.

“I think my arm’s broke, so it’s gonna take me a minute to get down. You hang in there kiddo, I’ll have you out as soon as I can.”

Lance might only be nine, but his sense of humor caught his father’s pun. He smiled as he matched it. “Okay, Dad, I’ll just hang out here while you get things figured out.”

“My son, the future Jimmy Kimmel. What did I do to deserve this?” With only one arm, Jack was reduced to unbuckling himself and falling ingloriously to the former ceiling of his pickup cab. Down, he moved to examine his son. Beyond the visible scratches, he found one other wound, a bump on the side of his head that trickled a little blood. Lance moved his head and limbs freely when asked, so Jack judged it safe to release him from his seat.

Getting out of the truck was easy, none of the windows had survived the roll. What awaited them outside was far less easy to take. In the middle of the countryside, and early in the afternoon of a week day, traffic hadn’t been heavy. But there wasn’t one vehicle in sight that sat upright. Not far ahead, a compact car had endured a similar upending, but it had ended when the vehicle slammed into the concrete wall surrounding the end of a culvert. The cars rear end was now only a couple feet from its front end, everything between nothing but crumpled metal and shattered plastic. Beyond it, a tractor trailer lay on its side, a heavy-set man leaning against the cab as if it were the only thing keeping him upright. Further away, a column of black smoke rose from a vehicle that was already burning fiercely.

“You two all right?”

The question caught Jack off guard, but his instinctual attempt to spin around to face the questioner nearly sent him sprawling. He managed to stay vertical, and found himself facing a white haired black man in a sweater, his wrinkled face frowning with concern. “I think my arm’s broke, and my boy’s got a bump on his head, but we’re okay beyond that.”

The old man advanced. “I was a medic in Vietnam, so sit down and let me take a look at you two.”

Jack’s legs folded faster than he’d intended, the rough landing jolting another wave of pain from his arm. Then gentle fingers touched it, applying pressure that sent a spike of agony through his arm that caused Jack’s eyes to water.

“Yeah, arm’s broke all right. I’ve got nothing to splint it with, but give me a second and I’ll get it in a sling.”

Jack focused again, and saw old man slip his sweater off. “This is gonna hurt like hell, son, so you need to, grab my leg or something.” He didn’t exaggerate, and it was all Jack could do to not scream as his arm was moved one more time. Then it was immobilized inside a pouch made of the folded sweater held in place by the sleeves tied behind his neck.

“Thanks mister…”
“Name’s Virgil, Virgil Jeffers, and don’t call me mister. Every damn officer I ever served with insisted I call them ‘Mister’, and most of them were so ignorant they couldn’t have put a band-aide on a paper cut without screwing it up. Let’s see how your boy’s doing.”

Virgil moved over to Lance, who sat calmly while the old man examined him. He paid special attention to the bump before addressing his patient. “I want to put something on that cut you’ve got, but your Dad’s already got my sweater. Think you can spare your tee shirt so I can wrap your head and keep you from bleeding more?”

Lance gave the old man a broad smile as he stripped off his shirt. “Sure, Virgil…”

“Young man like you should call me Mr. Jeffers. Always good to show your elders respect, even if having a grown man calling another one ‘mister’ isn’t right.” Virgil folded the shirt, then carefully wrapped it about the boy’s head before knotting it on the side opposite the wound. He straightened with an effort and looked at Lance. “Not too tight, is it?”

“No, feels fine Mr. Jeffers. Thanks for helping us.” Lance stopped, looked at his father, then back at the old man. “Why’d you have a sweater on?”

Virgil gave the boy a smile. “Cause my wife always…” the smile faded, and the old man’s head turned to look back along the road to an older car that lay on its side, the post of a traffic sign sticking out of the driver’s side windshield. “I was wearing one because my wife always insisted on running the air conditioner whenever there wasn’t snow on the ground. I always felt like I was gonna freeze, but she’d complain about how hot the car was. You can ask your Dad about what us men do to get along with our wives…”

Virgil stopped, wiped the tears that had started running down his cheeks away, and shook his head. “She insisted on driving, after we filled up the last time. Said if I didn’t let her drive every once in a while, she’d forget how to. It should have been me, I should be in that car, not her. Lette was younger than me, she shouldn’t be……..”

It was all he could say, but it made clear what had happened. Jack put his good arm over the old man’s shoulder to remind him he wasn’t alone. The moment didn’t last long. Someone called out for a doctor, and Virgil stepped back. “Sounds like I’m needed. You two should get going, see if you can find a town or some place you can get taken care of by someone with the supplies to do the job right.”

“Shouldn’t we just wait here?”

Virgil had turned to walk away, but the question stopped him. “No, out here, in the middle of nowhere, it’s going to be a long time before anyone comes. Emergency services are going to have their hands full with folks in the towns. Sending someone out here isn’t going to be a priority for them.”

“Even if we call?” Jack reached for his back pocket, then remembered he’d had his phone on the charger, which meant it was in the truck. Virgil understood what he was searching for and shook his head.

“Don’t bother, I’ve already tried.” He pulled an old flip phone from his pants pocket and opened it. “I tried calling my daughter, and didn’t have a signal. I can’t imagine a quake strong enough to knock cars over left many cell towers standing, or that that much shaking did all the electronics much good.” The voice that had called for a doctor called again, this time more urgently, and Virgil turned away again. “Good luck you two, I need to go. Take care.”
“Thanks, Virgil, we will. You take care too. God bless you for your help.”

That brought a wave as their savior trudged down the road towards the shouts for help. Jack watched him go, then looked down to find his son looking up at him. “What do you think, son? Want to wait here and hope Virgil’s wrong?”

Lance gave him a broad smile. “No, let’s go home, Dad. If we don’t, Mom will yell at us for making her worry.” He pulled Jack’s old smart phone, the one he’d ‘inherited’ when Jack had upgraded. “I already checked, Dad. No bars, so we can’t call Mom or anyone else.”

“You sure? It’s gonna be a long walk if we try it.”

“Yeah, I’m okay, let’s just head home. Who knows, we might find a ride if we keep going.”

#

At first, Lance took the strange events as a license to be explore, forcing Jack to call his son back to his side again and again.

Then they passed the first bodies.

A black woman knelt over a pair of small, still forms. Someone had dragged them from the wreckage of the minivan that now rested under a toppled sign bridge and covered their faces. But they couldn’t cover the terrible injuries that had ended their young lives. And though some Good Samaritan had bound the worst of the young woman’s wounds, they could do nothing to for her crushed soul. So she knelt, head bowed and body shaking in silent weeping, watching over the children she could not save or abandon.

After that, Lance clung to Jack’s hand. Any sense of adventure was crushed more completely with every dead body they passed, every flaming wreck with no one around to watch it burn. They saw things they’d never imagined. Slabs of roadway fell near-vertical into open clefts in the ground, or were displaced sideways to stand as if they were islands on sections of embankment.

All around them, columns of smoke rose into the air. A huge one could be seen lifting from the direction of Poseyville, last town they’d passed through. Other, smaller ones rose from houses along the roadside. Not every house they saw was burning, but not one was intact. The quake had shaken ground and frame so hard most of the buildings looked like a tornado had passed over them. And the more they saw, the surer Jack was that getting a ride, or any sort of assistance, was a forlorn hope.

So they walked on, finding ways around wreckage and destruction on a seemingly impossible scale. Others joined them. They were young and old, every skin tone imaginable, but they were all united in their shock. Every face had the same hollow eyes, the same slack-jawed expression of stunned disbelief.

But all kept walking.

Jack had expected the day to grow warm, but the air gre increasingly hot and humid. It carried scents as familiar as spilled gasoline, and as strange as the sulfurous stink that rose from broad chasms in the roadway. They found a small crowd of people around and overturned soft drink vendors truck, and Jack’s parched mouth stopped him from passing the wreck. He took Lance to a car lying on its side and sat him down in the shade it offered.

His question “You thirsty?” brought a silent nodded reply. “Okay, stay here. I’m going to see if I can get us something to drink.”

That elicited a response from Lance. “Dad, look at them, they’re climbing up that truck, and you can’t climb with one arm.”

Jack looked over his shoulder and saw his son was right. “I’ll just ask one of the folks up on the truck to hand me something down.”

Lance stood and took Jack’s hand. “How about you help me get through the crowd, and I climb up to get us something to drink? I’m ten, Dad, not five. I can do this.”

There was nothing childish in his son’s voice, and for the first time, Jack saw something of the man he would grow up to be. Maybe I haven’t done so bad a job raising him. The thought flitted through Jack’s mind even as he ruffled his boy’s hair. “Okay, let’s get over there and see what’s available, shall we?”

No one stopped them from approaching the truck, and in close, the climb looked far less daunting than it had when Jack had first contemplated making it. Lance hardly slowed down, climbing the underside of the big vehicle like it was some gym set at his school. He gained the top and made his way to one of the now-open roll doors before dropping into the cargo box. He couldn’t have been out of sight for more than a minute, but after everything they’d seen that day, it felt like an eternity to Jack. Then an arm appeared, a six pack of sports drink clutched in its hand, and Lance’s head popped up beside it.

“Look, Dad, I managed to find some of the good stuff!”

Jack would have preferred bottled water, but gagging down that garish blue liquid would be better than being thirsty. “Good job, son, now get down here so we can both have something to drink.”

Lance pulled himself back onto the sill rail of the truck and gave a mock bow to his father. As he straightened up, Jack heard a sound unlike any he’d ever heard before. It was like a rushing wind combined with a deep groan like the Earth itself were in pain. Then the ground seemed to drop from under Jack’s feet.

Landing sent a wave of pain through Jack’s broken arm, and the world went momentarily gray. He was aware of the ground under him heaving and twitching like a living thing trying to shake him off. Then the motion stopped as suddenly as it had started, leaving nothing in its wake but the screams of people in fear. Jack levered himself up, but when he looked towards where Lance had been, he wasn’t there.

“Lance! Lance! Where are you?” No answering cry came, and Jack forced himself to his feet. A few of the people who’d been clustered around the truck stood too, but most huddled on the ground as if they feared rising might cause the ground to shake again. Lance wasn’t by the truck, and a frantic circle of it didn’t reveal him. Jack returned to where he’d started and grabbed a man who was still sitting.

“Did you see what happened to my son? He was the boy who was on top of the truck when the earthquake hit. Did you see what happened to him?”

All the reply he got was a frantic shake of the head, but a teenage girl in torn jeans squatting beside him spoke up. “I saw him fall backwards, I think he’s still inside the truck.”

As it lay, the sill of truck was a good ten feet above Jack’s head, meaning he couldn’t just pull himself up one-handed. “Miss, I can’t climb up, could you see if my son’s all right?”

“You want me to climb up there, with the ground shaking like it is? Are you crazy?”

The ground wasn’t shaking, and hadn’t for several minutes, but the experience of a major earthquake had undone the girl. Her eyes were huge, white showing wide around her pupils, and she clutched her arms about her legs like she wished she were back in the womb. A man Jack’s age in a UPS uniform stood up.

“I’ll climb up and see if your boy’s okay.”

“Thanks, I appreciate it.”

It only took moments for him to clamber up the truck and down into the open side, but to Jack, it seemed an eternity. Then Lance’s head appeared, and the fear that had gripped Jack’s heart receded. Jack could see that the improvised bandage around his was askew, and as he pulled himself out of the open door, it was clear his torso was covered in scratches. His movements had none of the energy they’d had earlier, and Jack, worried he’d injured himself, placed himself under his son as he climbed down. As soon as Lance’s feet touched the ground, Jack drew him into a one-armed bear hug.

“You scared the hell out of me, Lance! You okay?”

Seeing his son smile helped dispel the last of Jack’s worries. “Yeah, Dad, I’m okay…but I forgot the sports drinks!”

“Hey, kid, you looking for this stuff?”

Both of them looked up to find the UPS driver seated on the trucks sill, a six pack of the blue drink dangling down and another of the orange-colored variety setting next to him.

“Sure am! Thanks, mister.” Lance caught the drinks when they were dropped, then the ones his rescuer had claimed for himself. The driver followed them down at a slower pace, then addressed Jack.

“Found your boy lying on top of a bunch of this stuff. Looks like he must have taken a nasty tumble, but when I shook him, he woke up and knew where he was.”

Jack took the other man’s hand and shook it. “Thanks for going in there for my son.”

“No problem. I’ve got three kids at home in Carbondale, and I just hope someone’s there to help them if they need it.” He gave Lance’s shoulder a tap. “You’re brave, but you ought to be a bit more careful. Your Dad looked fit to claw his way through this truck to get to you.”

“I’m sorry, Dad, mister…”

“It’s Frank, and don’t worry about it. Now, we’ve got ourselves something to drink, so what say we enjoy it?”

The three of them moved into the shade of an overturned semi and found a spot amongst the mixed bag of people already seated there. Lance opened a bottle for sports drink for Jack, who found the blue concoction tasted as bad as he’d feared it would. But it was wet, and his parched throat welcomed it. Frank chugged a bottle of his orange drink down, then started a second before speaking again.

“Where you two headed?”
“Mount Vernon, but I don’t know how long it’s going to take to get there walking.”

Frank glanced at the sky and shook his head. “Even if the roads weren’t torn up, you wouldn’t make it in a day’s walk. It’s got to be sixty miles, and that doesn’t account for any detours you might have to make. Worse, I can’t imagine any of the bridges are still standing. The Wabash is deep enough for barge traffic, so folks aren’t gonna be crossing it unless someone sets up a ferry, or the Guard puts a pontoon bridge across it. Throw it all together, and it might take you four days, maybe a week, to get there on foot.” He stopped and looked at them. “I did two tours in Iraq, spent lots of time dealing with bad roads and detours. Lots of time walking too. You don’t think about how tired you can get walking until you’ve done a lot of it, or how slow you move.”

“Well, then the sooner we get to walking, the sooner we’ll get home. Right, Lance?”

“Right, Dad! I bet Mom’s worried about both of us, so we better get home. How about you, Mister Frank?”

Frank shook his head and raised one of his feet to show a sock worn through to a swelling blister. “Just my luck, I picked today to break in a new pair of shoes. It only took me a couple of miles to get these, so I’m going to stay here a while.”

Jack shook the hand of his son’s rescuer. “Frank, I can’t thank you enough for helping my boy.”

“Wasn’t nothing. You two take care of each other, hear?”

Jack and his son joined the thin stream of people walking past, a stream that now included people carrying make-shift bundles of possessions. One woman walked in the middle of a small gaggle of children, all of them red headed like her, with a bulging quilt slung over her shoulder. An old black man shuffled along, leaning on a cane, as a boy of eight or nine trudged beside him carrying a pillowcase stuffed with can goods and bottled water. All of them headed west, imitating the Sun’s march across the sky, but unlike the Sun, the humans had no clear path to follow.

A concrete culvert had collapsed into what had once been a small stream, but was now nothing but a muddy channel, the water gone from all but a few pools. Jack and Lance waded through ankle-deep mud surrounded by dead carp already beginning to stink in the hot, humid air. They followed other on a long trek around a gaping crevasse that could have swallowed a semi whole. The pavement ran into a low valley now filled with turbid water, its surface dotted with debris and dead bodies.

They had struggled around the edge of the ominous lake and regained the pavement when Lance let go of Jack’s hand, doubled over, and spewed. His boy wretched until he had nothing left the vomit, then after a couple of abortive efforts to bring up more, he managed to straighten up. Jack laid his hand on Lance’s shoulder, and the boy turned his head towards him, but he looked unfocused, as if he were in a daze.

“You okay?”

The question brought more animation to his son’s face. He managed a smile, but Jack could see it was forced.

“Yeah, Dad, I’m okay. We should keep walking, cause we won’t get home if we just stand here.”

“I think this heat’s a little too much for you, so we’re taking a few minutes break.” He pointed towards the remainder of the six-pack of sports drinks his son had brought with him. “You should have another one of them, get something back in your stomach to make up for everything you brought up. Come on, let’s both get some shade and take a breather.”

Shade proved to be more elusive than Jack had thought. The small stand of trees was still upright, but the ground around their trunks had split open near them from the shaking. Others had also had the same idea. Families and small groups of individuals clogged most of the few spots where the ground remained whole. Jack and Lance found an unoccupied spot that was mostly shaded and sat down together. As before, Lance opened bottles for both of them, but now he struggled to twist the tops off. This worried Jack, but he hoped it was just the an effect of the heat and continuous walking. Thirst overruled taste, and Jack was happy to gulp down the warm blue fluid. Lance took longer, sipping instead of drinking deep, and that worried Jack too. Then he heard a sound he hadn’t heard in a long time.

The deep thumping beat seemed to shake the still, humid air as it grew in volume. Jack’s eyes scanned the clear sky, but the silence around him amplified the noise of the rotor wash, making it seem the helicopter that generated it appear closer than it was. Then he saw it, a dark spot moving through the sky, tracing the same path he and everyone around him had been following. As it grew nearer, he became aware of voice, like that of some god calling down instructions from the sky.

“An emergency aid station has been established at the rest stop west of here at Milepost 57. Food, water and emergency medical services are available there. An emergency aid station has been…”

The message boomed out over and over as the copter passed overhead, fading to nothing as it moved away. Jack looked to his son and found he’d managed to down most of his sports drink.

“Feel any better, Lance? I think that rest area’s just a couple miles from here. If we can get there, we can get some real food, maybe even get a ride. Sound good?”

The smile was less forced than it had been, and his boy’s eyes held their old sparkle as he answered. “Sure does, Dad. Let’s get there so we can go home.”

They joined the other people moving out of the trees, back to the shattered ribbon of pavement, part of a growing stream of humanity headed west. Lance held his hand, and for the first mile, he kept up. Then he began to slow, and when Jack looked, he saw his son’s face had taken on the same dazed look it had held after he’d vomited. Then he stopped, fell to his knees, and brought up all of the sport drink he’d managed to swallow. Jack crouched beside him, an arm over his boy’s shoulder to let him know his father was there and to protect him from being tripped over. He was only partially successful in the latter effort, with both of them catching several unintended blows from the feet of passing people.

“Lance, let’s get over to the shoulder and out of this traffic. Think you can get over there?”

Lance’s head came up slowly, his eyes unfocused, but he tried to smile as he pushed himself upright. His voice, when he spoke, was slurred like he was drunk.

“Sure, Dad, I kin get o’er there, it’s not like I gotta walk ta…”

Then his son folded like someone had cut the strings of a puppet. Jack managed to get his good arm under him as he fell, easing him to the pavement as gently as he could, but when he rolled him face up, Lance’s eyes were closed and his breath labored.

“Lance, hey, you hear me son? Lance!”

He saw his son’s lips twitch, form a smile, and heard him murmur “It’s okay, Dad, let’s go home. Mom said she’d pick up a chocolate cake, and I want some. So let’s go home…” His voice trailed off, and his face lost all expression. Jack tried to lift his son, to carry him to help, but he didn’t have enough strength in his one good arm. He looked around, looked into the blank faces passing him, passing his son by.

“Help me! Something’s wrong with my son, and I can’t carry him. Please, help!”

People kept walking, ignoring him, unwilling to seeing the new tragedy unfolding in front of them. Jack opened his mouth to shout at them, and a hand came down on his shoulder. It was black, and dirty, and he could feel the the calloused strength of it through is shirt.

“What’s wrong wit yo boy?”

Jack turned his head to face a man who made him feel like he was in the presence of a mountain. The hand was connected to an arm covered in muscles bigger than those on Jack’s leg. It lead back to broad chest barely covered by a muscle shirt that peeked out from under a ‘high-vis’ vest like those worn by highway workers. The face, under a shaved head, didn’t look like one that smiled, but now, it was filled with concern.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with him. We were going home when our truck got flipped by the quake. I broke my arm, but Lance, my son, seemed fine. We’d been walking for a while, then he started vomiting, and he just passed out. The helicopter said there was an emergency aid station up ahead. Can you help me carry him there, please?”

“Sure, I kin get yo boy there.”

That was all he said before scooping Lance up he weighed nothing and setting off at a trot, leaving Jack to scramble to keep up. As he jogged along, the huge black man chanted “Out the way, out the way! Gotta a sick kid here, out the way, damn it!” and the crowd parted for him like the Red Sea for Moses. They kept that pace up for most of a mile, each running step sending a jag of pain through Jack’s broken arm. Then the rest station came into view and the black man broke into a sprint, leaving jack floundering in his wake.

What he finally stumbled into, gasping for breath and in such pain his vision was graying out, was a scene of complete chaos. None of the buildings of the rest stop had survived the quake, but the parking lot had held together. It was covered in awnings, each surrounded by people trying to gain access to whatever each awning offered. Behind them all stood a pair of tents sporting a white circle and red cross that must be the emergency medical facilities. Jack pressed towards them, ignoring everything else.

Each entrance was guarded by a pair of National Guard soldiers in riot gear carrying an automatic weapon. Surrounding the was a churning mass of humanity. Some struggled to get into the tents, shouting various complaints about injuries real or imagined. Others stood, clinging to each other, some with faces set in fear, others weeping. Jack spotted the high-vis vest and smooth black head of his savior amongst them and shoved his way forward heedless of his own pain or any he inflicted on others. He got to him, and surprised himself by yanking the big man physically around to face him.

“Where’s my son? What’d they do with him?”

The way his eyes wouldn’t meet Jack’s said more than his words. “Yo boy’s inside. Doc’s took him right in, said he needed lookin’ at right ‘way.” He saw the big man’s Adam’s apple move as he swallow before continuing. “He din’t look good. I run fast as I could, but he’s…” Jack saw tears start streaming down that hard face, and feared the worst. But this man had done what he couldn’t, and he had to tell him that.

“It’s all right. Whatever happens, it’s all right. You did what I couldn’t for my boy, and I’ll never forget that. Thank you for helping me, for helping us.”

He hadn’t planned to embrace the other man, but he found those huge arms around him, heard the other man trying not to cry. All of it came to him through a wave of pain from his broken arm, now crushed between the two of them. He must have gasped without knowing it, because he felt the pressure release, and through a hazed vision, he saw shock on that stony visage.

“Yo, you bleedin’! Hey, someone, this guy’s bleedin’!”

That was the last thing Jack remembered. His next memory was of waking under a shiny tan plastic ceiling. His left arm felt wrong, far too heavy, and his right had something stuck to it. He managed to lift his head enough to find his left arm encased in a bright blue plastic cast, and his right arm sprouted a pair of IV feeds. Then everything came back to him. The wreck, Lance becoming sick before passing out, the run to the aid station. Jack tried to sit up and the room seemed to twist around him in a gut-wrenching spiral of disorientation. Jack didn’t vomit despite his stomach’s protests, and as his head cleared, he became aware he wasn’t the only one suffering. He shared what he now realized was a large inflatable tent with a dozen other patients. He heard moans of pain coming from at least two other forms, but some of them lay frightening still, as if they’d given up or were so close to deaths door that they could no longer express their pain. Only one other person, a young woman with both legs immobilized in casts, sat upright and awake. She favored him with a smile.

“Good to see you’re awake. They brought you in here last night and had a nurse checking on you every half hour until sometime after midnight, so you must have been in a pretty bad way.”
“Did they say anything about a boy, my son? I was hurt when my truck went over, but he got real sick on the walk here. Has anyone said anything about him?”

She shrugged. “Nope, nobody said anything. A big black guy named Chaz came by after they brought you in, looked like he wanted to talk to you, but when he saw you was out, he left. Haven’t seen him since.”

At least Jack had a name to connect with the man who’d done so much for Lance. But he knew nothing about his son, and when he swung his legs out of bed, dizziness hit him even stronger. He was trying to push through it when a strong pair of hands pressed him back. They were connect to an earnest young man in military fatigues who made it clear he was not going to allow Jack out of bed.

“Sir you need to rest, You lost a lot of blood, and your BP is still low. You try standing, and all you’re going to do is end up on your ass on the floor, if you’re lucky!”

“Blood loss? How’d I…”

The young man, Jack saw he had his name, P. Killian, stenciled over his left breast pocket, firmly pushed him back as he replied. “You had a broken arm, and somebody treated it. But then you did something stupid that caused the bones shift. They punctured the skin, and nicked a vein in the process. Chart says you nearly bled out. We’ve put two units of blood into you already, and I’m going to be hanging another unit here in a few minutes. So just relax and let us get you stable.”

“Listen, I just want to know what happened to my son, a ten year old boy named Lance. He was sick, unconscious, when he was brought in. He had dark blond hair and he had a blue tee shirt wrapped around his head to bandage a scrape he’d got on his head. Have you seen a boy who looks like that?”

Killian got Jack’s legs covered before answering. “No, I can’t say I have. Which doctor did you speak to?”

Jack motioned towards his broken arm. “I couldn’t carry him with this. A big guy named Chaz helped me, he picked Lance up and carried him. I had a hell of a time keeping up.”

That drew a sharp look. “Don’t tell me, let me guess: you ran with a broken arm in a make-shift sling?” Jack opened his mouth to defend his actions, but didn’t get the chance. “No wonder it was so messed up. You got a couple good-sized holes in your arm where the bone came through the skin, then worked around as you ran. I’m amazed you didn’t drop in your tracks, but adrenaline can make the human body do some incredible things. How about this: I’ll ask around after I take care of you and everyone else in this tent. If you’re son’s here, someone will know where he is. He might not be here, though. We had our first evac flight at sunrise, taking folks off to a hospital in Indianapolis that survived the quake. There was some talk of putting you on that flight, but too many folks were ahead of you on the triage list. You say he was brought in unconscious?”

“Yes, he’d gotten sick, vomited a couple of times, then he just kind of keeled over.”

“Okay, I’ll see what I can find out. It might take a while for me to get back, so don’t go wandering around, hear me? I find you’ve dragged my IV stand to another tent, I’ll kick your ass just for principle.”

Young Killian worked his way around the tent, tending to the other patients, then returned to swap the now empty blood bag for a full one. He hung it, swapped out the bag of clear fluids for something else, and then injected something into the IV line. “This is for the pain, so you might feel a little drowsy. Don’t worry about your boy. I promise I’ll find out what happened to him and if I can’t get back to tell you, I’ll make sure someone else does. Rest now, get your strength back for your son.”

Jack felt a wave of almost blissful relief sweep over him, washing away pain he hadn’t even realized was nagging him. It also swept him away from that dismal room, off to a place where Lance sat beside his bed, a smile on his face. It felt safe there, alone in that room with his son, but something told him it couldn’t last. His last memory of the quiet space was of his son taking his hand, smiling, and saying “Dad, you need to wake up, we gotta go home.”

It was early morning when he awoke, Jack could tell from the warm quality the light streamed into the tent through plastic window beside his bed. Several of the beds around him were empty, including the one that had been occupied by the young woman in the twin casts. Jack hoped they were empty because the people who’d been in them had been discharged, and not because they’d died. A figure in olive drab entered the tent, but her coffee-colored skin and short frame was nothing like Killian’s. She saw Jack watching her and smiled.

“Good morning, Mr. Everrets. How do you feel today?”

Jack rarely heard himself called ‘Mr. Everrets’. that was what folks called his Dad, so it took him a beat to respond. “I’m feeling good. How long was I asleep?”

“I wouldn’t know. You were asleep when I came on shift at midnight, and it’s just coming up on 6 AM, so at least six hours. Do you know what time it was when you went to sleep?”

“It was light outside…and a guy named Killian was here. He promised to find out about my son, Lance. Do you know if he did?”

“Killian? Pat Killian? He had the afternoon shift yesterday, so you must have been out for close to twelve hours. And no, I didn’t talk to him, so he couldn’t have told me anything about your son. Your son’s name was Lance Everrets? I can go ask, but what was he admitted for?”

Jack told his story again, and like Killian before her, the young woman had nothing to tell him. “I’ll ask the head nurse after I finish my rounds, but I haven’t seen a boy who looks like that. Now, let’s get your vitals checked so I can get on with my work…”

Her uniform had ‘J. Ochoa’ stenciled over the left breast pocket, and she went about her duties with a brisk but friendly attitude. When she taken her final reading, Ochoa rolled up her blood pressure cuff and stowed it away. “You’re vitals are normal now, Mr. Everrets. You might not remember me, but I was the attending nurse when they brought you in. Your blood pressure was so low, the doctors were afraid you heart would stop. We were pumping blood into you as fast as we could! It’s good to see you’ve recovered so well. Maybe they’ll transfer you out today.”
“I’m not going any where until I find out about my son, miss. I’m sorry, but I have to know how he is, and where he is. Can you please get someone to find out and let me know?”

“I will, sir. I’ll check with the head nurse as soon as I can, and I promise to make sure you know as soon as possible.”

She left, to be replaced by another young woman who asked if Jack felt up to eating, Just the question made his stomach growl, and he had wolfed down two bowls of oatmeal without tasting them. The coffee accompanying them swept the last haziness from his mind and left him feeling impatient. That impatience grew as the light did outside and no one came to tell him about Lance. Jack felt like one of this insects suspended in amber, like time had stopped around him and nothing could ever break him free of this eternal state of not knowing. The tent door opened with the soft swish Jack had become familiar with, and a middle-aged white woman with a severe face entered. She walked up to Jack’s bed and swept a cold eye over him.

“I’m head Nurse Alice Fenton, and I’ve had no less than two of my nurses come to me asking for information on your son. We don’t have a Lance Everret listed as in our care, and there’s nobody matching the description you gave listed as a JD either.”

“JD?”

“Sorry, medial slang, ‘John Doe’. I haven’t asked anyone to check the morgue tent because you’ve insisted your son was just suffering from a fainting spell, is that right?”

Morgue? Jack’s mind shied away from the idea that his son could be dead. There was no way Lance could be dead. “No, he can’t be dead. He just fainted, maybe from th heat. Is there any chance he could have been discharged while I was unconscious? They tell me I was in a bad way when they brought me in, so is it possible he could have been released then?”

Nurse Fenton shook her head. “Both of my people told me your son was a ten year old boy, and there’s no way a minor like that would be discharged without a parent of guardian to take care of them. I can go double check, make sure he wasn’t transferred to Indianapolis General for further care, but if that didn’t happen, then I don’t know what happened to your son. Give me an hour, Mr. Everrets, to make a few calls and find out for you. I hope I can get you an answer, because I also understand you’ve refused to leave if you can’t find out, and as far as the doctors are concerned, you’re fit to be discharged.”

Jack started to object, and she held up a hand to stop him. “I didn’t say I was going to kick you out without your son, or at least the knowledge of where you can find him. It’s close to lunch time, so I will expect you to eat, but hopefully by this afternoon, I’ll have the information you’re requesting and we can get you onto one of the ‘duce-and-a-half’ taxi runs to the Wabash so you can get on your way home. I’ll ask one of my male nurses to help you get dressed. Your pants and shoes are in a bin under your bed, and I’m sure we can scrounge up an OD green tee shirt to replace that blood-soaked shirt they cut off you when you arrived.”

The man who helped Jack get dressed looked like he’d blow away in a stiff breeze. A pale, almost whey-colored face atop a slender trunk, arms and legs that looked more like sticks than human limbs. But for all that, his grip was firm and he didn’t waver as Jack leaned on him to get his pants up. He was also silent. No chatter, gossip or even encouragement came from his lips, and when Jack thanked him for helping, all he got in the way of a reply was an inarticulate grunt as he walked out the door.

Inaction followed, and the longer he was left to stew, the more restless Jack became. Only two other patients were in the tent with him, and both of them were as impatient as Jack to be out of bed and home. Nurse Fenton’s arrival brought all of their attention into focus, but her frowning face stilled any questions. She walked up to Jack and guided him to the exit. “I have something I need you to look at before we can release you, Mr. Everrets. Please come with me.”

#

The truck that took Jack to the Wabash was a dark green, hulking monster. The bed was high above the ground, even with his eyes, and there was no easy way for a one armed man to climb aboard. A pair of guardsmen helped him aboard, one pulling him up from the bed while the other stabilized him as he struggled to get a foot in the stirrup built into the rear gate. His time in the emergency center had thinned out the number of people trying to cross into Illinois, but the big truck was still over half full when it pulled away. The slate seat bit into Jack’s ass, and while he’d been given some painkillers to help with his fracture, he felt each bump they hit.

There were a lot of bumps. The driver followed I-65 for only a short distance before swinging off to churn through the fields alongside it. The road, where it was visible, was now nothing but a string of fractured patches of pavement setting at whatever odd angle the shifting ground had left it at. The closer they got to the Wabash, the more disrupted the ground was. Broad openings in the ground rimmed with incongruous banks of brilliantly clean sand had been hurriedly filled in, but the dip left behind sent the truck bouncing like a wild horse being ridden for the first time. Other spots where covered in water that rose almost to the bottom of the truck bed.

Much of the ground was a soupy, muddy mass that slowed their huge conveyance to a crawl and caused the engine exhaust to rise from an uncomfortable growl to a deafening howl. They were grinding their way through one such patch when the guardsman who’d stayed in the bed gave a shout.

“Looks like you folks are in luck. The ‘Cannonball’ is on this side of the river, so you can board right away.”

Jack raised his head, bringing himself out of the hazy place he’d let the painkillers take him to. What he saw was not promising. The earthquake had caused the Wabash to spread. Trees, still covered in green leaves, rose from the murky river water. Between the water and the muddy ground they now navigated was an low embankment topped with a decaying strip of tarmac. Like the interstate, it too was torn asunder in many spots, but the section the truck aimed for was whole and level. Beyond it was a craft Jack had never seen, or imagined, in his life. Six big rubber rafts stuck out of each side of a broad metal deck, and the whole thing was flanked by pairs of identical rafts. These had men in them, and big outboard motors fitted to the rear. People were already standing on the deck, part of a small crowd that was boarding by walking across metal grates that stretched out from the embankment.

“They can’t be serious. We’re supposed to cross a river as big as the Wabash on that thing?”

“It’s okay, Dad. Look at all those people getting on board. They trust it, so we should too. I want to get home, so let’s go.”

Boarding the floating contraption proved to be far less trying than getting down from the truck. A teen aged boy had to help the guardsman get Jack to the ground, then a few steps across the tarmac that ended in a shaky walk over the grating to the deck. People flopped down where ever they could, but Jack knew sitting down would mean a fight to rise again. He stood watching as the last few passengers came aboard and the gratings were pulled ashore. Someone shouted an order and the motors revved to life.

As they backed them away from the land, Jack saw more evidence that they were now floating over what had once been dry land. A power line stretched out, growing closer and closer to the surface of the water before dropping into it by a roof that protruded barely a foot from the water. Then the last trees dropped away and they motored across the muddy expanse of the new Wabash. A pair of concrete towers, their tops ragged, marked where the I-65 bridge had once stood. Of the mighty steel arch they’d driven across, not a trace remained.

Reaching the Illinois side of the river entailed navigating a maze of trees and ruined riverside houses, a task made difficult by the surprisingly strong currents present on that side of the Wabash. Men in guard uniforms waded chest-deep in the water to bring lines that were used to pull their improvized ferry snug to an identical section of floating decking. It was joined to two more, and beyond them the ground rose to a shelf that backed against a steep hillside. Jack said a silent thanks for not having to walk another flexing stretch of narrow metal walkway as he joined the other passengers headed ashore.

More guard members stood at the land end of the cobbled-together pier, directing Jack and everyone else along a rough path that carried them to a zig-zag path up the hill. A mass of tents stood around the top of the path. Many were identical to the inflated shelter Jack had awoken in after he’d passed out, but the others were as individual as the groups that had set them up. Red Cross volunteers handed out clothing and what they called a ‘disaster pack’. Jack took the one that was thrust into his hand, and found it held hand sanitizer, disposable wash clothes and such day-to-day necessities as a roll of toilet paper. The guard had a pair of tent where food was being dished out in the form of MRE’s. Jack’s stomach growled, and after a brief stay in line, he found himself eating a package of chili so bland that he wished he could ask for hot sauce. It went down, though, and he felt more awake with food in his belly.

After a quick visit to a latrine, Jack tried to find out how he could leave the encampment. Indiana, he soon found out, had been able to spare guard vehicles to move quake victims without vehicle. Illinois, one guard member told him, had all of its vehicles tied up either moving people out of the wreckage that had been Chicago, or evacuating East St. Louis. The Mississippi had been dammed by an uplifted section of land just north of the spot where it had joined the Ohio. The backed up water spread north, and people on both sides of it were fleeing as quickly as they could. There was, however, an impromptu taxi service made up of locals with four wheel drive vehicles who were hauling victims to some of the larger local towns.

The Sun was setting by the time Jack found someone headed to Mount Vernon. He joined eight people in the bed of a Ram with a jacked-up suspension and more bondo holding it together than steel. His arm was throbbing again as he was helped in, so Jack popped another pain pill and relaxed as well as he could while being hauled through more scenes of disaster.

They arrived well after sunset, driving into a town where few building still stood and roads were paths through the rubble. All around them, fires burned. Some of them had people crouching beside them, while others appeared to be nothing more than the remains of the conflagration that had consumed a building. Their path they took went nowhere near Jack’s house, and ended in a broad spot Jack realized had once been the parking lot for the county court house. Nothing of that impressive old Depression-era building stood, only a mound of jumbled rubble marked where it had once been.

With no way to find his house in the unrelieved darkness, Jack found an intact portion of the lawn and laid down. Lance sat beside him, looking out over the shadowy devastation that surrounded them, and Jack wished he could shield his son from the horror of seeing everything he’d ever known in ruins. But there was nothing he could do, no magic he could work to make everything right again. That disappointment was the last thing in his mind when he fell asleep.

Dawn came early, and Jack awoke to find his son sitting beside him, his face turned towards the Sun, a smile on his lips.

“Hey, you get any sleep kid?”

Lance looked towards him. “Sure, Dad, I got plenty of sleep. Sleeps not a problem any more for me. Can we go home now? I want to see Mom, see how she’s doing.”

“Sure thing. I want to get home too before your Mom hunts me down for not calling to let her know how we’re doing.”

Getting up from flat on his back one handed was harder than Jack imagined. He managed it, discovering aches he hadn’t had the night before. The clear dawn light revealed a scene even more devastated than he’d imagined the night before. Every building around the court house had been knocked down, as had most of those he could see. But with the knowledge of where he was, Jack knew he could find his way home. So he set out, Lance beside him as he had been these past days. Neither of them spoke as they made their way down streets they’d both known for all their lives, now stranger than any foreign city. Into the residential areas, past the baseball diamond where Lance had played and people now camped. The charred remains of the local convenience store told them they were close to home. Down the street lined with destroyed homes, down to the end where their home stood. Most of it was still standing, but the roof had collapsed into the interior, leaving nothing but a shell of the place that had been home. But there was a familiar tent standing on the front lawn that told Jack his wife had survived.

He started forward, but Lance didn’t move. “Come on, son, Mom’s still asleep. Let’s give her a surprise she’ll like and let her know we’re home.”

Lance gave him a smile. “It’s okay Dad. Thanks for getting me home. Tell Mom I’m sorry, that I wanted to come home, but I couldn’t leave that tent in Indiana.”

“What are you talking about, Lance? Come on, let’s go home.”

“I can’t go home, Dad. Remember, I died in that tent in Indiana. You cried so much, I couldn’t leave you to go home alone, so I stayed with you. But I have to go now. I love you and Mom, take care of her. Don’t forget me, Dad, but don’t blame yourself.” Lance began to fade, becoming more ethereal, an outline of a boy, not a boy in reality. Then he was gone, and in that moment, Jack remembered the cool, dark interior of the morgue tent. The rows of silent forms covered in tarps. One small one that Nurse Fenton had uncovered to reveal Lance’s still face. She’d told him why he’d died. How the blows to his head, the wreck and the fall into the beverage truck, had damaged a blood vessel in his brain. It had burst from the strain of walking, and he had been dead before he’d made it to the operating table.

Jack’s legs folded under him, and his head tilted down, he began to weep. As he did, like an echo of a voice came a single thought: You got me home Dad. Thank you.

It wasn’t enough, but Jack accepted it would have to do.

An occasional okatu steps forward

Literary people like to imagine themselves as these broad-minded folks who can see every side of people. Sadly, that isn’t anywhere near true. Like every other human, we have our built-in biases. Our world-view is colored by our upbringing and our life experiences. Most disturbing of all, we are just as subject to group-think and peer pressure as any other human.

I bring this up because I know it will play a major part in how those who read this will react to what I am about to say:

I love anime, and think it’s a valuable source of ideas and inspiration.

(For those of you unfamiliar with the word, here’s the Wiki on anime: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anime)

There are a lot of folks who will take one look at anime, then give a self-serving sniff before denouncing the art form as mere “cartoons” that are nothing but ‘vulgar’ entertainment. Sorry, but here’s a news flash: unless you’re writing for dictionaries or assembly manuals for Ikea, pretty much anything you write is going to be ‘vulgar’ entertainment…or it’s not going to be read at all.

So first fact: the folks who take the ‘look down their noses’ attitude are just putting their own closed-minded prejudices on exhibit.

So what does anime bring you in the way of creativity? First off, it takes you out of your cultural framework. Anime is no longer strictly a Japanese phenomena (both the Koreans and the Chinese have begun producing some very interesting offerings), meaning that it shows you several other cultures take on life. And because it is animated, the creators are not limited by what an actor can or can’t do, or even what reality is. Just by themselves, these two mind-opening aspects of the art form should recommend it to anyone who considers themselves creatively inclined.

It can also examine some fairly profound questions. Did you join the throngs who went to see Scarlett Johansson in “Ghost in the Shell”? I will freely admit I wasn’t one of those, and that’s mainly because I’d been exposed to the original movie. The 1995 anime movie perhaps embodies the cyber-noir genre.

Positing a near-future world where humanity can ‘enhance’ humans with cybernetic body parts, it examines one of the most fundamental questions of all: what is it that makes a person a human? In a future where human brains can directly interface with computer networks, the protagonist, Major Motoko Kusanagi, is the pinnacle of cybernetic ‘enhancement’. Her entire body is artificial, the only portion of her that is still organic is her brain. She is part of a cyber-crime/counter-terrorism unit of the Japanese police, a job that brings her into contact with an antagonist who mirrors her in many ways. Known only as the Puppet Master, he is infamous for hacking the minds of humans, getting them to do his bidding without question. It is only when she encounters the Puppet Master in a cybernetic body that Kusanagi learns the truth: the Puppet Master is really an artificial intelligence that has achieved sentience, an AI that seeks to become fully alive.

The story explores several other unsettling questions, like soldiers who, living in cybernetic bodies they do not own, and could never afford to buy, are effectively property of the government that made them, but by itself, the central question should challenge any thinking human: What makes us human when the machines we make look and act just like us?

There are numerous other anime I would recommend, but shall refrain from for the sake of brevity. Are all of them profound and/or thought provoking? No, but a lot of popular literature isn’t either. Some of them are just enjoyable for the story they tell, the artistry of the illustrations that make them up. I will, however, recommend two recent anime, ones that should be readily available and can give an introduction to the art form.

From Netflix, “Violet Evergarden” (more here: https://www.netflix.com/title/80221698) is both a lushly drawn piece of visual artistry, and some very good story telling. If you have a Netflix subscription, it’s worth the time to watch.

The other is a movie, one that caught quite a lot of attention when it was released world-wide last year, is titled “Your Name” (more here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Your_Name). Visually, it is stunning, emotionally, it is captivating, and on a cerebral level, it challenges you to wonder what it would be like if you were to live someone else’s life. Available through itunes (https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/your-name-dubbed/id1335078125?ign-mpt=uo%3D5) I appreciate it enough to have acquired a copy so I can watch it whenever I want.

So there you go, two good bits of anime to (hopefully) wet your appetite. I’ll close with one final bit of Japanese culture, a word: okatu. It started out as a negative reference to people who are interested in anime and manga, the ‘graphic novels’ they are often derived from. Now, it’s used almost as a group label by the folks who are interested in these art forms. I will freely admit to being something of an okatu, though I am mainly drawn to anime. I will advise anyone who decides to investigate anime further to be careful, because it can become something of an addiction…and you too might end up becoming an American okatu.

oGood luck, and enjoy.

The after-effects of winter

Well, after a teasing start (that featured highs in the upper 40-low 50’s mixed with no less than two ‘sticking’ snowfalls), Spring seems to have finally grace my region with it’s presence. Yesterday, it got into the mid-60’s, which prompted me to get out do some yard work. Today, with the morning temps already in the 50’s, I decided to haul the bike out and run the first errand of this year on it.

I was expecting the tires to be low, which they were, but beyond that, my ride was in fine shape. Very little rust had accumulated on the chain, and outside of some early noisiness, the brakes worked fine. The shift mechanisms were in good shape, barring the drive sprocket shifter, which still has a tendency to not travel far enough to slip the chain back onto the ‘1st‘ gear.

The ride out was enjoyable, but reinforced an observation I’d made the day before: I am badly out of shape.

The yard work was to take care of some trees that had gained ground in my raspberry bramble. One, a sumac, had found a spot deep inside the bramble where it was virtually impossible to get at. Brambles tend to ‘migrate’ (or at least mine does), and last year the grown around the sumac finally began to thin. So, it was Target #1 on my list, followed by a pair of stumps that I have to take down again every few years. Target #1 had had enough time to get to around 2 1/2” in diameter, so it was a good-sized tree to go after with my trusty bow saw. The stumps had smaller suckers/saplings sprouting off them, so I decided to take the lot and attack them as close to the ground as I could, where they were nearly as thick as my main task.

Wading into a bramble, even a section where most of the canes are dead, requires protection. If I could find a good, fine chain mail shirt that hung down to my wrists, I’d be tempted to buy it just so I’d have something I could get in amongst my canes in and not end up a bleeding mass of cuts and scratches. Not having that, I defaulted to my usual, an old hooded sweatshirt from my days in the ‘crete-yard’ (ask me about it someday if you’re curious). It did it’s usual okay job, though I have a cut on my left wrist I still don’t know how I got. Thing is, by the time I got done, I was sweating and feeling tired.

Today’s ride brought the same garment out to give me something to break the wind, but I didn’t need to bother. On arrival at my destination, I was again sweating, and my legs were telling me they were not amused with me. Perhaps it was just the need to break myself in, but after picking up what I’d gone for, the ride back was not half as tiring, even though it was far longer due to a train parked in town blocking traffic. Maybe my legs just needed to be ‘called back to their duty’?

One thing is clear, I need to get off my butt and get active again. If the weather holds, I hope tomorrow to take my first crack at an old friend: the local bike trail. If things cool off, or the rain that’s predicted to come in for the weekend arrives early, that might not happen. But I do need to get moving, to get exercising, before I end up rooted in one spot.