Here it is, the last chapter of part one. And what do I get? Nothing, except the pleasure of writing it.
So much so that I've started a 'part two' and in the first chapter a Russian invasion of our country which I think you'll enjoy even more.
Chapter twenty one
Two years later
It was quite a joy to begin repopulating a world that had almost rid itself of mankind. We set to it right away on our farm, the perfect, peaceful most fruitful setting for maternity and raising children. It was a hidden valley and the world, or what was left of it, left us thankfully alone. The older girls were delighted to help in every way. They called them their two new brothers and sister on the way. Tom and Mira had a baby girl, so the symmetry was perfect. We were all one large family, lost in a valley of pure bounty and happiness. It would have been a hippy dream a half-century earlier, and it was a commune of sorts with everyone participating in harmony. Life was easy, like the song ‘Summertime’, at least for awhile.
Our bedroom exchanges were brief. Nancy insisted on coming into mine early each morning, to snuggle with me and reassure herself of my love for her, an act that did, thought it practically pushed Sheila out of bed. But she didn’t mind. The second day there I showed her our laptops, still running fine, and the libraries of information Jane and I had stored on hard drives.
She’d be sitting at our dining room table, at six AM. sipping a coffee and going through all of them happy as could be, because she hadn’t seen a laptop and such a trove in four years. She always complimented Jane, the second to come downstairs on her selections, Jane helping her out with our labeling systems, as we had dozens of drives.
Jim was no slouch either. On that same next morning, I told him we had sixteen soldiers at our beck and call just waiting for our orders and living in town. He asked if he could take eight of them to his old hospital. He was dying to see what shape it was in and with them he could safely explore. Jane went with him that day. He was home by evening extremely happy. He said the place had been ransacked, not set on fire like the other hospitals he’d seen.
So he claimed it was repairable and that would be his mission over the following months, with the soldier’s help. He also came in with several canvass bags and had us view the things he found. The prize that surprised the women was some twenty pregnancy test kits, ready to use. But he also brought back bottles and pill bottles of various medicines, that were in some well-hidden cabinets the looters missed.
Having worked there for five years he knew every secret spot and in the following days would bring back much more, for safety, as stragglers wandering in from the West my still check out such an anomaly as a standing hospital and take whatever they could find.
At the dinner table that night he told us one wing of the hospital should be fully repaired and staffed and made useful to the settlers who would soon be moving into this area. He said some of the machinery could be fixed, and with our generators, no longer needed here, they could have a workable facility.
Bill, who’d been mostly idle lately, and drinking too much, volunteered to help. His hair was greying and he didn’t seem so happy or the sprightly man he once was, before the gunshot wounds. So we all agreed this would be the perfect project for him, directing a few soldiers for the heavier work and planning out whatever was needed to fix the smashed-in doors, broken plumbing and electrical wiring.
Nancy volunteered too, and so did Sheila, but here Jim interrupted and told Sheila, under doctor’s orders, that she was to remain here and do nothing but rest and read each day for at least a week. She had so much she wanted to explore on the laptops, she readily agreed, both of them side by side on the dining room table, running constantly, with all SSD drives piled up beside them. This was now her study. That night Jim determined that Jane was definitely pregnant and Mira the next evening, as we had them over for dinner.
So as I said, everyone was busy and happy for the next few weeks. I was the lazy one, strolling with the girls through the farm, sometimes to Tom and Mira’s on social calls, listening to their delightful chatter and adding in when I could.
Miranda was now approaching thirteen and Anne seventeen, inseparable friends, tending the vegetable patches, feeding the animals in the barn, the pigsty, riding horses together in the afternoons with the two saddles Nancy had long ago bought for herself and me, helping Ann’s mother, whom Miranda called ‘auntie’, (her real name being Antje, of Dutch extraction) but somewhat bored at the repeated routines, which filled but half their days.
Then about a week later, I remembered the attic. That activity had stopped with the gun battle and Eric’s death, off limits, too full of sad memories. So when I suggested we make this exploration, just as a diversion, Miranda ran and gave me once again the hug of an eight year old, warm and sweet. For all these years she considered me her surrogate father and the nicest man in the world, sharing all her enthusiasm for me in endless talk with Ann. So I always met with an over-kind reception from her too.
What I didn’t expect, as the three of us crept up that narrow ladder into the dusky room, flashlights in hand, it wasn’t the boxes of potential toys that drew their attention, but all the colorful, laced-embroidered Victorian era clothes. Ann looked upon the visible rows on dowels awestruck, like some poor man finding a chest of gold.
Miranda followed her lead, both carefully approaching and touching their delicate fabrics and lace. I, a little more rudely, slid some aside, as I knew there was more behind them. And this was where the real treasures lay, in a few armoires and chests and one chiffonier.
After opening a few of these drawers Ann was beside herself in excitement and said she had to run down and get her mother right away. I followed part way and helped her middle-aged mother up the narrow stairs. She too was mesmerized by the sight, with a vague memory and knowledge of such fineries from seeing the rich ladies walk by on a cobblestone street to Sunday church, as a little girl in some small town in Holland.
They began to explore every drawer with ‘oous and aahs’ of delight. I left them to their wonderment, saying: you can have anything you like” then adding, devilishly: “Why don’t you try some on”.
That evening, Nancy found her bed covered in Victorian dresses, Sheila too, and the farmer his bed and half the house, every chair, layered in strange but richly ornamented clothing, hatboxes and shoes covering the floor. Dinner was a bit late but an entertaining sight as the woman and girls came in dressed to hilt in gaudy finery over a hundred years old, even Miranda, as the girl that had long ago lived their left behind some of her outdated dresses and shoes that fit Miranda just fine. It was a sight to behold, what they call a ‘Polaroid moment’.
But as I said before, all joy is contagious. We almost laughed at the spectacle but enjoyed it, and it continued, to lesser degrees for weeks. My chore, and no easy one, was to move an armoire and fine dresser down those narrow steps to the girl’s room and another two to the farmer’s house. The farmer was happy because his wife was in such a fine glow, something he hadn’t seen in a long time. A definite cheer filled everyone’s hearts.
Ann pretending, outside our house.
Three pregnant women, happy at first.
These were weeks of pure pleasure for everyone. The hospital was making good progress with Jim and Bill, Jane and Nancy and now nine of the soldiers following them each morning to work on it. Bill took a few, and Nancy too, as she knew what each room needed. Jim was the final word in instructions, Jane delighted to be at his side, helping, pretending, like the girls back at the farm, that she was now a real nurse, and would soon be, learning everything she could.
The girls played dress up half the day, no longer with dolls but dolls themselves, changing their hair, trying out the brooches and pins they found, in an imaginary Shangri La all their own.
This left me idle. I didn’t dare impinge on those fantasies, so rare and precious. I simply admired them from a distance, the philosopher again. I did the same with Sheila in the dining room. She was so intent on her researches, whatever they happened to be at the moment, we rarely spoke, though I walked by that open door twenty times a day. I found my own task, restoring my library from the bunker, a few handfuls at a time, a labor of love.
This strange triangle of sex ran smoothly until first Nancy and a week later Sheila tested positive for pregnancy, with Jim checking the strips again and again for positive results. When each proved positive, we had a celebration dinner, a huge one for Nancy and Sheila, as it was ‘mission accomplished’. But in the women’s heads, unbeknownst to us, that night marked another change, hidden deep in their hearts and minds, as the hormones of pregnancy skewed all rationality. It was just as if Cadmus sowed the teeth of the dragon into the soil again, and armed soldiers sprang up eager to fight each other. Resentments arose out of nowhere. I could only figure it was ‘the end of the affair’.
Now we resumed our former sleeping arrangements. Sheila took the bed in the girl’s room, seemingly happy. The girl’s two beds were still pressed tightly together. She had the other end of the long room to herself.
At the same time, feeling duly recovered, Sheila asked if she could help out at the hospital. Jim readily agreed to such an addition of expertise. So now the three women and Jim and Bill set out each morning. They knew they’d be just fine through their sixth month of pregnancy, taking things easy.
I always knew a woman’s mind had much more complex circuitry than a man’s, unfathomable to us. I noticed it in a few of Sheila’s strange out-spills of emotion, the first day in the dorms, and in Nancy too, when she stormed off that night I was late in writing my third novel, so unexpected and precipitous, without explanation. And then her not calling for three weeks. It all turned out well. But the act itself, and Sheila’s, seemed crazy, overcharged with emotions one never suspected were there.
When Sheila started work, she more or less took control, even Jim, who’s hospital it was soon to be, agreeing to her recommendations and changes, some of which reversed Nancy’s work. She took charge of all the soldiers, except the two helping Bill. It was two alpha females working in a small space. And it didn’t work. One remark from Nancy after one of Sheila’s alterations: “You’ve never been a nurse” and the curt reply: “Yes, but I’m a lot more intelligent than you are”. It would have started a fistfight between two men. Nancy walked away in a huff, and never came back.
Jim didn’t intercede. He took Nancy aside and told her: “you’d be much happier back at the farm” and had one of the soldiers drive her home a few minutes later. But Jane had the guts to walk right up to Sheila and say: “That was an extremely rude thing to say. You never demean a person’s intellect. If you said that to me I’d have slapped you hard. And the offer still stands if you do say it to me”. Then she stormed off, hugging Nancy by the Jeep.
Nancy was a great deal happier staying home and with me from then on, resuming some farm work with the girls, glad to have her back. Joe and his son too were glad she was home, as she accomplished so much. They liked her immensely, as she was much like them, loved the same work and they admired her efficiency. I remember Joe turning his son around one day in the barn and saying: “look how she works and learn”.
Six months went by in this unspoken truce, Sheila and Nancy rarely speaking, as they passed in the hall. Sheila ate alone in her bedroom with a laptop in her lap. The same work arrangement continued, till the night Mira had her child, with everyone’s help. Jane announced she’d no longer be going to the hospital but stay home and help with Mira’s baby, she herself soon to burst.
Nancy was next, then two weeks later, Sheila, continuing to work with Jim until a week before. Now it was a household of crying babies upstairs, Jim running back and forth with the two girls, then joining me in my study half the day, with the door closed. I was surprised how soundproof it was, something I'd never had to try out before.
The important thing was that the babies were healthy and the three mothers, doing the same chores, seemed reconciled and talking much more, helping each other. Then one day something else changed.
It was a convoy of sorts with a few jeeps ahead and behind and something like limousine in between. The man who stepped out was wearing a khaki uniform now, his chest covered in medals. It was lieutenant Steele.
The women stayed indoors, except Sheila, handing her baby to Nancy and making her way downstairs. Jim and I stepped out to greet him.
“I’ve been requested to take you to the president, the General”, he told me, “and you too Sheila”, just as she stepped out the door. “He has some important matters to decide and would like your advice. We a have a plane waiting. Can you be off with us for a few days? I can honestly say, you’d both be doing your country a great service”.
His arrival was completely unexpected. And I might easily have replied that we were both retired and Sheila a mother now with a three-month-old to take care of. But something in the tone of his voice, so different in that last sentence from the military one he began with, gave me pause. There was the slightest hint of a personal plea in it.
“Is something wrong”, I asked, “for him to need us”?
The hesitation as he answered was a definite indication there was.
“No”, he said “we’ve reconquered the continent, just as you predicted, with a swift assault and very little resistance. We’re united now, a United States again. But we’ve had communications with Europe, and he requests your advice. No need to pack. Everything will be provided for you. You’re headed to the White House”.
He walked right up to us now, informally, shook both our hands and said loud enough for the soldiers to hear: “Glad to see you again, my friends”. Then added in a whisper: “Please come, it’s important”.
I agreed. Sheila ran upstairs to Nancy, who was still holding her baby, and asked her in the most polite tone if she could take care of little Louie for three days, as she had to go away to Washington on official business, to meet the President.
Nancy of course agreed. But Sheila, in a strange gesture of emotion, or more exactly, premonition, gave her baby a long kiss on the forehead and then Nancy on the cheek, running down the stairs quickly. She made a sound as if she might be crying. Jane and Nancy could only stare at each other in wonder.
Bill had wandered out and I told him to say goodbye to Nancy for me, and everyone else, as I had to leave right away but I’d be back in a few days. We got in the car.
I was fairly close, as I was back in two weeks.
But Sheila wouldn't see the farm again, or her child, for a long, long time. And somehow she knew it. It was all part of her plan.
For the rest of the world, these years were more like a slow recuperation from a long illness. I think North America fared the best, along with the most isolated islands, perhaps New Zealand and Australia too.
They didn’t have the wars that devastated Europe and Asia, where the survivors fought for years over whatever scraps were spared from the initial madness of the Church.
There were some nukes set off in Europe and the Middle East, where people’s hatred of their neighbors was the last thing diminished by a plague that killed off nine-tenths of them. It was as if hatred was the last thing the virus could kill.
But as we slowly regrouped and restored communications across our nation and then with Europe, through shortwave at first, repairing our electrical grid along the East coast, the other countries of the world began to look at us with envious eyes, as we had the vaccine and the fuel that they lacked.
Our General, as I predicted, was now seated in the oval office directing affairs. He’d retaken the continent with far more ease than he thought possible. And there were benefits to boot as our armies reached California and Texas, which both instantly surrendered for the pill, surrendering and joining us on what seemed like mild terms, some autonomy for our aid.
Our armies found both these areas to be doing well, comparatively speaking, because they had re-organized too, the West coast getting rid of the Church under a de facto military rule quite efficient in restoring food production along the coast. In Texas the people themselves organized and overthrew the Church. They even had a few small refineries and wells up and running. They had the gas vehicles, just not the forces, the numbers, to dare fight our tanks and ranks.
So the General cut many bargains. He’d be in full charge and delegate, as he always did, every province to a new man he thought would be his lackey, after long interviews and drinking bouts.
He wanted us to stay a week, to meet all the men he’d chosen to run different areas, our personal and private assessment of them. But he had them on a tight leash, as vaccine production was far behind all the survivors we found. So he would dole out a few thousand at a time, and all his requests were instantly obeyed.
I could hardly help but laugh, the first time Sheila and I were ushered into his new office, his feet up on the far nicer desk and smoking a cigar, a bottle of bourbon beside him, glad to see his old friends again, but as lazy as ever, not even getting up, asking us to help him with advice.
He’d put on a lot of weight. I could see that, and his face seemed bloated and a bit yellow. But Sheila could see further, and that night in the connecting suits assigned to us, she crawled into my bed to talk secretly and told me he was dying of acute liver damage.
He told us, with that same old smug smile, that North America was under his thumb, just like the Stones song. But Europe was the question.
He had a few battleships, but he knew France and Germany and Russia had a few operational nukes (or claimed they did) which put a stalemate to invading armies over there. These forays happened quite a lot until recently. It wasn’t threats but the attrition of people and declining supplies, especially gas, which stopped the incursions across borders, but not before each country was in shambles.
Now they were begging us for the vaccine, but could he trust them or give them access to our labs, by which they might repair their tattered countries and sooner or later attack us. War seemed in their blood. We were the land of plenty. A single nuke might make us surrender everything, before ten more fell.
I asked for time to confer with Sheila, to meet his staff and read the communications he’d received. He nodded as usual, adding: “You wouldn’t believe the treasure trove of liquor we found in Minnesota and Utah, the most unlikely of places. I’m sending a package back with you, repayment for what you gave us in the early days. We have two refineries up and running.
Sheila thought he meant oil but I nudged her and said: “No, he means whiskey”.
Then he added: “I’ll tell you what. The only thing I don’t have is coffee, even sent a patrol to Mexico to find some. But that group never came back. Lost a hundred good men. It must be a mess down there and I’m not sending another.
“But I know you have a heap. I’ll tell you what. I’ll trade you a case of the finest wine for each pound you give me. Can’t beat that deal”.
“You said you have some battleships” I answered. “I hear that Cuba and Puerto Rico make some of the finest beans. Why don’t you just send them down there”?
“You are a smart boy. That’s what I always liked about you. An answer for everything. But it’s too far, too dangerous. I’m not trading battleships for sacks of coffee. You know how easy they sink. A few RPGs might down them. They run blind. We don’t have satellite links anymore, most of their equipment is useless, no GPS. Hell, they’re using binoculars and sextons”.
That evening he invited us to a banquet downstairs of governors and staff and lieutenant Steele. Most I didn’t recognize. But I did notice a few glitzy, dressed-up women in the group at the far end and wondered where their expertise lay. One looked strangely familiar.
After the feast, right in front of everyone, (his minions) he turned to us and said loudly and quite drunk: “We’re all Americans here, all on the same side.
“But what about these Germans and French and English, demanding our formula. You read the dispatches Luke, and you’re the one man I can fully trust for sensible advice. What should I do”?
I had leafed through pages of communiques and was saddened by the terrible state of affairs across the Atlantic. Their populations were one-fourth of ours and those left desperate for aid, dying for it, with no gas and little organization, just a few enclaves in cities and villages with short wave operators begging for help.
Off the top of my head I came up with a reply. He was so drunk he probably wouldn't understand half of it. But I was on the spot and had to say something: “Send over a ship full of spies who speak the language, with thousands of pills and have it take a tour of those countries. They dole out the pills a few hundred at a time to the leaders for their allegiance and lots of information. When the ship comes back with them and hostages, we reassess matters”.
He stood up: “Everybody stand up and give this man a toast. Fine advice, just fine. I knew you’d come through, Luke”.
At this point he fell back into his seat, almost falling over.
As I looked around at this motley crew of yea-Sayers, some in uniforms full of medals, others in expensive suits all raising their glasses to me in unison, I could see this country was in bad hands and deep trouble. Only lieutenant Steele, of all the crowd of sycophants had a different look in his eyes, a look of deep concern.
The raucous party broke up, two of his attendants throwing his arms over their shoulders and walking him to his bed. As we were about to be led to our rooms, lieutenant Steele ran over to us and said: “I know it’s late now, but I’d like to meet with you privately in the morning. Set your alarm for six. No one here wakes up before eight”.
We followed his advice. He was the one man we hadn’t talked to that afternoon, and I didn’t know why he’d been kept from us. But there must have been a reason.
That night as Sheila put her arms around me in the dark and whispered the General was dying, I was surprised at this unusual move of hers and thought she might want sex.
“Don’t be a fool” she whispered, “maybe later”. Her lips were an inch from my ear, “This room is tapped. It’s typical of the paranoid delusions of a man in the final stages of alcoholism. He trusts no one deep down, though he won’t admit it. He knows he’s sick. He brought us here now. It’s a final goodbye to the two that put him in power.
“This tells me he’s grasping at straws, desperate, delusional. And he trusts no one. Maybe he trusts you a little in his twisted thinking. He probably won’t even see doctors, suspecting they might kill him. I’ve read books about his condition, what so much power does to weaker minds, the death of Stalin, the end of Yeltsin. Steele will fill us in. This is a crisis. Now let’s be quiet and think how we can solve this problem”.
Then she kissed me, unexpectedly. “Why”? I whispered.
“There must be cameras. We have to look like were having sex”.
“Best way to do that is to have it” I replied. “And why are you wearing perfume”? I couldn’t help asking. Something didn’t make sense in her behavior. Even her talk was a bit erratic.
“Let’s just pretend we’re lover’s” she answered. “I know I’m no threat to your devotion to Nancy. I might be gone for a long time and though I never admitted it, I did enjoy your intimacy. So while we’re here, I’ll have one last taste. That’s why I put on the perfume. We won’t be here long, or ever again”.
“Strange words”, I thought. Then she started on me, like before.
We didn’t just go through the motions. It was fairly passionate. After some ten minutes, without a word, she turned and went to sleep, leaving me with all sorts of unanswered questions.
Through all the events of the last year I’d come to the resolution that it was a complete waste of time to try to understand the female psyche, or the words they spoke in bed. In Nancy’s case it was always elliptical, round-about bribery, never to the point, but suggesting one existed, which I’d get the next day with a straight-out request. With Sheila it was ten times more complex. That’s why I gave up trying.
As I lay awake I thought about the General, his sad condition, the banquet, the set around him, proposing toasts to make him drink more and obviously wishing him dead. I had no influence as the ‘prophet’ anymore, especially with this new gang, only the good graces of a dying man. I saw all that at the banquet. My last thought, before sleep was: “Sheila will come up with something. She always does”.
The next morning, when she woke me up before six, all bright and cheery, I knew she had something. We showered together and dressed just before the soft tap on our door. We walked down empty hallways and outside on to the side lawn just as dawn was breaking.
White House at dawn.
The first thing the lieutenant said to us, as we walked out of hearing range of the guards was: “Did you talk last night, between yourselves. The whole place is wired”.
Sheila answered: “No, we figured it was. We whispered, very quietly, ear to ear. Unless there was one in the pillow, we weren’t heard”.
“Wise move” he added, “there was one behind the bed board but that wouldn’t have picked you up. One of my men helped install them.
“The old man is dying, as I’m sure you can see. He’s becoming delusional. The problem is that he’s put puppet leaders in charge everywhere, and so-called generals too, incompetent, weak men. Johnson and Wilde have been relieved of command. I’m next to go, any day. I had to bribe one of the women he still tries to sleep with to suggest he invite you here. Luckily, he did. She even told him she knew you, helped you write your first novel, and he’s so far gone, he believed her”.
“Is her name Naomi, from New York by any chance” I asked?
“Yes it is. Do you know her? Is she telling the truth? How do you know so many people in all the right places”?
“It’s just my luck again. It won’t leave me alone”.
“You must be blessed somehow. How do we get out of this debacle? If there’s a power vacuum, there will be more wars. Our standing armies number thirty thousand, split into three groups, one in Canada, one in California and the other in Georgia, with their tanks, artillery and fool-headed commanders. All pandemonium could break loose the moment he dies if no one is selected to replace him. He can’t even be approached on that subject. He claims he’ll rule forever. And we certainly don’t want to hear what Alexander said on his deathbed, ‘to the strongest”.
“Do you think Johnson and Wilde could regain the loyalty of their troupes, after so much success leading them, and depose these newcomers? How long is it since they were disgraced”?
“Only three and four months ago, as they were in the midst of campaigns till then. And I know for a fact the soldiers didn’t like it, the change of command and they’ve been sitting around ever since, in new camps and they don’t like that either”.
“And how about your troupes in Canada”?
“They’re spread about, but still faithful to me. I picked most of the sub-commanders. The one put in charge, when I was called here for staff duty is a weakling, a pushover. Just showing up there they’d swear allegiance to me in one loud ‘hurrah’ and he’d be strung up on the nearest tree”.
“Great then” I answered, and much to my own surprise, as I hadn't thought any of this out, I added: “This problem is solved. Naomi is a close friend of mine and I know her metal. She also owes me one big favor. We can work together secretly as the General has no idea we’re in any way connected.
“We’ll do that to buy time. With her whispering ideas in his ear at night and I meeting him daily about this European issue, you three prepare the path to regain your armies. Do it with your most trusted men, the upmost secrecy. When the time comes, when he’s on his deathbed, have the rumors spread among the ranks that his picked generals are planning an all-out war against each other, brother against brother, and only you three, taking charge again can stop it.
“You’ve always worked in perfect unison in the past and the men were so mixed and transferred and integrated in the early days, they all know each other, like they know you. With the army in your hands you can easily replace the fools he’s picked as leaders and replace them with proper one’s, re-uniting our nation in peace and prosperity. Just make me one promise. None of you vie for the presidency. It has to be a civil leader who you trust to be in charge. Put your heads together and pick the best man you all agree upon”.
I surprised myself with this plan. It must have been constructing itself subconsciously in the back of my head since yesterday. Both Sheila and Steele fully agreed, saying it was an excellent plan, far better than either expected, Naomi being the decider, the chink his armor against the circle of users surrounding him.
“Did you sleep with her”? Sheila bluntly asked me.
“We were deeply in love for a short while. She was my first love. I was writing my second novel. Fate split us up against our will. Why, are you jealous”?
“No, I just didn’t know you got around so much, such a rich history, I’m intrigued. That would make a good book, your story”.
“I’m not writing another book, it’s purposeless”.
“Would you write one with me, sitting beside you”.
“A collaboration? What are you talking about? Everyone’s minds are on other things”.
While this banter was going on between us the lieutenant mentioned a far more serious matter. It was daylight now and we didn’t have much time. We’d be summoned to a banquet breakfast soon, at some big table with rounds of Mimosas and toasts and sycophants. The party never stopped in the White House, Wilde informed us.
Then he brought up this other concern.
“What about Europe, Luke? You saw the dispatches. We get more and more every day. We have to do something soon. It’s a crisis.
“That idea you gave us last night has a million holes in it. Anything could go wrong, like the first contacts we meet outnumbering us and taking all the vaccines for their own advantage, killing us for the boat too. Your idea sounded like the ‘floating hospital’, the ‘mercy ship’, built for an era of peace long gone. It would be raped and shredded in its first port of call. Excuse me Sheila”.
Sheila spoke up: “Your perfectly right on that count, lieutenant, but it wasn’t a serious suggestion, just something to please the drunk General, and it did. But what Luke just said has given me a great idea, a plan that will work and save tens of thousands of lives without cost and risking any of our own men. It will make Europe eternally grateful to us, then the rest of the world, and possibly unite us all”.
“Sounds too good to be true. What is it”?
“We do write a book, Luke and I. Luke’s name will give it credence and my facts effectiveness. That’s what you get to Europe and everywhere else, a simple delivery, and I think you’ll devise a way to do that safely. You could drop it from an airplane, or send it in an empty skiff, your ship out of range”.
“What’s in the book”? He asked, as surprised as I was.
“Everything” she went on, “the formula for the vaccine, the way to make it, the equipment needed, the antigens, the common antibiotics that will work and the bonding agents, all described in detail along with every step of the manufacture.
“And we’ll include samples of all these parts so they can’t fail, and some finished vaccines so they see that they work, sealed up inside the book. We can make thousands. And if we deliver them around the world at the same time no one will have the advantage. It will be like ‘open source’ on computers in the old days, all for free, all to help mankind”.
“That’s a great idea” we both exclaimed, almost simultaneously.
But then I said: “It sounds like a book you can write all by yourself. My name on the title page won’t make much difference”?
“Yes it will” she said. “But that’s just the first half. You write the second. You tell the world our history. You're much better at that than me. You tell them exactly what happened here, as you saw most of it, were a part in most of it, how to re-organize and set up communities, all the lessons you learned and taught about cooperation, how you overlook nothing and treat everyone as an equal. You’re an expert in such enlightened prose. It will be a manual for success and we’ll include pictures of our thriving communities, our farming and fishing industries. I’ll add in what I know of restarting refineries and finding pipelines still full of gas. It will be the most valuable book in the world for these times, the only book”.
“Think of it Luke, you’ll be a best seller again”.
That didn’t move me but her idea and enthusiasm did. It also moved lieutenant Steele.
“Could you write it in the next few weeks” he said. “I’ll get a printing press going somewhere discreet with my men. But you, Sheila, will have to go North and manufacture the packages with your friends”.
“No” she said. “I can delegate that to a few of my lab partners at Durham. All you have to do is get them my message. And you should set up the press there too, so it can all be put together seamlessly and secretly. We’ll stay here, if we’re allowed, and write the book and keep an eye on the General at the same time, ‘under his thumb’, as he puts it. He won’t know what were up to.”
“But he has spies and minions all over this building” the lieutenant countered.
“I can counter that” I answered. “I’m sort of used to having manuscripts ripped off by my agent and I’ve learned a few lessons. We’ll write it in our suite, Sheila, like you said, side by side, maybe even in bed together. The General will only be asking a few hours of our time each day in his condition. The rest we’ll devote to it”.
“But they’ll see you writing. They have cameras”.
“I have an idea for that too. I’ll be writing two books at the same time, with Sheila’s help. She’ll write her half and at the same time pretend she’s gathering facts and figures for my other book, a potboiler about the General’s great achievements. I can knock that off in a week. I’ll even tell him and show him parts. Vanity is one of his greatest weaknesses. He’ll love it and not only keep us here longer, but make sure we’re not disturbed too often while at work on his ‘legacy”.
“The important work” turning to Sheila, “we’ll compose in my undecipherable scribbles, the one’s that Nancy hated so much, saying I was accomplishing nothing. No spy will make heads or tails of those. They’ll only see the General’s monument being completed”.
“Nancy told me that story. It’s true” she told the lieutenant.
“You two are brilliant” he said, shaking our hands. “I’ll get right on my part. Sheila, if you can give me that handwritten note, so they know it’s you, I’ll find the messenger today”.
So our work began, after the pitchers of mimosas and platters of breakfast. I noticed the General only took a single bite of his, confirming our suspicion of his fast-approaching demise. He even said he wasn’t feeling quite right, helped again by a guard to his bedroom half-way through, while the revelers went on, excusing himself and telling me he’d want to see me this afternoon.
We made our way to our suites. I asked an orderly for pads and pens and we began, after moving the desk from her room next to mine, as we talked quite a bit for the microphones, all small talk having nothing to do with the notes jotted down. I was used to it, often having the TV blaring in my ear while I composed my first novels, eons ago.
I had one last interview with Naomi. It was brief but felt very strange, like looking in a mirror and seeing yourself as you were a decade earlier. In one way it’s scarry, though you’re more handsome and feel young at heart. At the same time you know it can’t be real, a vivid recollection at most and a deception that is going to fade away any moment. The worst ghost you can see is yourself in this way.
I found another ‘escort’ in the hall and asked to see her. They were all roomed (or perhaps segregated) in one area near the General’s bedroom. She took me to a door and Naomi answered, not surprised at seeing me standing there as she knew I was coming to the White House before I did.
She invited me into her elegant suite and not to make small talk or dredge up the past I went straight to the point.
“Thanks for inviting me or getting the General to do so”.
He’s in bad shape” she replied, “everyone can see that”.
I noticed that Naomi looked as if she was only a few years older than my memory of her.
“You’re looking fine” I said, “and doing fine I’m guessing”.
“I hate to say it, but you look like you’ve aged many years. I heard of all your exploits”.
“I feel like I’ve been through three lifetimes of exploits, not the child you once knew”.
“Let’s let that be” she continued. “Every night I’m with him, which is most nights, he has deliriums. And he’s always mentioning your name. I thought it might do him good to have you here. As soon as I suggested it he agreed”.
“You don’t know what a good thing this could turn out to be” I told her. “We have a plan, my friend Sheila and lieutenant Steele and I, and we need your help to carry it through. It only requires us staying here as guests a few more weeks. If you could help manage that we can get our mission under way, to help this land and Europe. You don’t know how many lives you’d be saving if we can pull this off. All I ask is that you ran into me and that I mentioned I was writing a book about all his great achievements and wanted to give it to him as a gift, that I’d be finished in about a week if he keeps me here, and that Sheila is helping me with all the details, a full history book.
“Whisper in his ear in bed that it’s supposed to be a secret, that I told you in confidence, to surprise him and thank him for all he’s done for me”.
“That’s easy” she said. “I’ll tell him in the morning when he first wakes up. At night he can’t remember a thing. Sometimes he doesn’t know where he is. He can’t make love. But he likes my company at night. I hold him tight and each morning help him shower and brush his hair. He can barely make it to the bathroom without my help. I’m his nurse more than anything else, though I can’t say that word. I did once and he threw a fit. But the other women won’t sleep in his vomit anymore or care for him like I do. They sleep with his stooges.
“So I’m his favorite of the harem. I can tell he was a nice man long ago”.
“You’re doing the right thing, the noble thing, Naomi. And those stooges will soon be gone in an ugly way. So your friends, or competitors or whatever have bet on the wrong horse. I’m proud of you coming so far. And I’m sorry I upset you that night long ago. I deserved the slap. It was my wake-up call.
“And I’m sorry I insulted you that night long ago. I deserved the slap. It was my wake-up call, or rather the crash I turned it into. I needed that, a sobering up in a hospital. They say I would have died another death without it, a drug death, so in fact you saved me”.
“You saved my life too” she replied. “First, I would have felt terrible if you died in that crash. And when you recovered and wrote again I followed everything about you in the papers. I read your next books and believed everything you predicted. That’s what saved me. When the Church first started coming into power I was one of the first to flee. I had an idiot, rich boyfriend who wanted to stay, thinking it would all blow over. But I screamed him into flying me to his place in Florida and from there in his small plane to the tiny island of Vieques, just as the death toll shot up. It was almost deserted when we landed there, at an old, deserted naval base. In your books you said that would be the safest place, the most remote the better.
“But he couldn’t stand the solitude and flew back to Florida a week later, thinking the gates around his mansion could protect him. He ditched me because I refused to go, and you won’t believe this but the day he left I searched around and found an underground bunker full of rations, and beds and guns. I lived there three months all alone. The local fishermen and families thought the place was spooked. They lived off what they caught and grew. I thought about my whole past those days and often about you, sunning myself on the roof of the tower.
“Then one day a cruiser pulled up to the wharf. It was a colonel who’d been stationed there years ago and he knew about the bunker and food. But there was plenty for all of us, him and his three men, all he had left out of twenty. They weren’t sick and we lived there another year. One of his men got a shortwave working and when the General moved into the White House he was invited back. The General wanted his boat. He was sent out West but the General told me to stay”.
“I’d be dead for sure if it weren’t for you”.
She pecked me on the cheek after she said this and I knew our interview was over. I left, reluctant but happy. Everything was settled between us, perfectly even. We were both survivors.
To sum up this narrative, our plans worked out perfectly. The General was bedridden within a week but still refused to let any doctor near him. He kept a bottle at his bedside. I’d visit briefly each afternoon and read to him the pages of his glorious achievements over the years, reconquering the continent with three armies moving in every direction at once, a feat far beyond what a Grant or a Lee ever accomplished.
He actually grew tearful at some parts, my descriptions of his wise choice in lieutenants, his imperious commands immediately carried out, his supreme authority, the hundreds of communiques and queries on his desk each day, decided upon and dispatched with blinding speed, and the continent retaken within two months.
I finished the last chapter and started reading it to him but stopped. His breathing grew faint. He turned his head to look at me and said, with difficulty: “you’ve been a good friend to me, more than any other”. He tried to move his hand towards me. It reached halfway, then fell limp on his chest. He expired.
I don’t know why, but I sat there crying much like he had, for many minutes. It wasn’t his death, it was more over the futility of all lives, all human endeavors, always ending in ruin, in the sad, bloated, jaundiced mockery of his face, unable to speak.
He’d been a far better person when we first met, active, vital, kind, generous and always helpful, a friend, though we were hugely unequal in rank. And he did accomplish the goal of saving many lives and reuniting the country.
This is why I cried, overwhelmed by what time does to us all, “the sad vicissitude of things”.
I called an orderly to the room after this tearful meditation, I don’t know how long. One loses all track of time in such a trance.
But as soon as I left the room my awareness sprung back to life, in second-by-second technicolor. I immediately went to our suite, gathered all our papers, took Sheila by the hand and hurried her down the hall, informing her as we rushed.
I commandeered a jeep at the front gate, saying we needed to get a doctor right away and I knew where one was. The guards complied though they were told by the old man that no doctors were to be allowed in the gate. But they knew it was him and feared this was too serious to deny.
So off I sped, straight out of Washington, just as pandemonium in the White house began to spread.
I knew it would fall just as the Church fell in New York, mass hysteria and confusion, taking its toll, and if one looked up, some huge, red devil sitting in a cloud above that house with his pitchfork, watching in glee.
I thought for just a second, as I was cramming all our papers into a suitcase, of Naomi. But that idea of rescuing her from the hell that would shortly ensue evaporated. I had no idea where she was in the building and she’d done me her favor. We were even and quits. I’m sure, with her looks and wits she’d walk away just fine.
Some chapters in your life you just have to end, even in a rushing manner, running away.
Not all things end elegantly, especially death. The others you try to keep to a minimum, with a semblance of control and politeness.
Sheila had a mind that worked on levels above mine. Some of her plans, her mathematical solutions to human dilemmas, I didn’t realize until years later. But one became apparent the next day.
We’d sent our finished manuscript a week earlier through Steele’s courier. He’d been there waiting and had done his work well. He had a ship ready and a thousand volumes of the book printed and ready with its packages sealed and crated up, the ink barely dry, along with another ten thousand pills to deliver to Europe, with an excellent crew and a few scientists and doctor volunteers, sitting in Boston harbor, waiting to sail.
We drove all night. He stayed just long enough to shake our hands before dawn and bid us ‘good luck’ as we did him. He had a plane to board and a meeting in Edmonton that morning for a conference with his army staff and the other two commanders in retirement, mysteriously appraised and on their way with their own planes for the trip.
As I was about to accompany Sheila to the truck for the drive home, she gave me a kiss and said: “I’m not going with you. I’ll be in Europe and around the world for a few years. But I will be back. Take care of little Louie while I’m gone, and Nancy too. Tell her I love her. He’s yours now, the two of you, till I return to visit for short periods, as I have other projects in mind.
She turned, walked to a ready jeep and driver and sped away.
Now, on the long drive home alone, it all made sense, what she said in the living room the first night, declaring that she had the perfect solution and would bear a baby with me. And the fight too at the hospital was all planned in her head months before it happened.
It was fabricated to give Nancy the pretext for spending all the more time with me, and now with this long departure, this sacrifice, a reason for Nancy and me to take the best care of her baby, now completely ours to raise, an amazing sacrifice.
Then I remembered her words in the gas tanker about marriage, that she and I could never be a happy couple.
All her words matched her moves perfectly, and it made me wonder, all the way home, what other moves she’d already pre-planned in her head, light years ahead of ours, for her child’s future, in the best hands and place, or my future for that matter, or Nancy’s, as she seemed to be like a puppet master, pulling all the strings in our lives that mattered.
What is this foresight that some people possess? It seems mostly women, though I have to admit I’ve had my share of it.
Next time I saw her I was going to make it a point to ask her if this was true, this foresight of her’s. It seemed like an important question.
Then it struck me: “I think too much. I guess that’s what makes me a writer”.
At this point I had just turned onto the long, winding path to our hidden mansion. The trail was still rutted and full of potholes. You couldn’t think while driving this road. You were constantly focused on it, swerving back and forth every few seconds to avoid the worst of them. It was an obstacle course, or, if you just plowed through, like a bronco ride by some cowboy, bouncing a foot off your seat, hanging onto the steering wheel instead of a harness, and ruinous to your back.
I’d done that one day, the day I drove to rescue Nancy after the battle. I didn’t do it again, especially this time as I was so glad to be finally home, with so much to tell and so many to hug.
And it did seem like a final return. Everything was settled. Sheila was off to rescue the World, our own continent likely to see peace and prosper, with an able leader in the White House.
I even bet Naomi would manage to reside there. She had the three most potent gifts any woman could be blessed with: wits, looks and talent.
I even imagined for a moment that this might be the last time I’d need to drive this rugged road. From now on people would have to visit me, if they wanted to see me, if they cared or had any reason to.
I had everything I wanted just a few miles ahead, everything a man could hope for.
It was just like my idyllic life at the shack, writing my first novel, when I had complete focus and inner peace.
The sure sign of this is that every day you wake up happy.
Mankind slowly came to peace with itself as the vaccine was distributed and produced in many places across the globe. But the populations were so diminished, the planet enjoyed a respite from this creature called man. Nature restored herself from pollution, deforestation and all sorts of depletion the overpopulation and craftiness of mankind had created. Animals regained their former domains and numbers. Vast expanses of land enjoyed their primitive fauna and flora again. Forests grew where they once covered wide expanses. Global warming stopped. The oceans revived with life.
I think this pandemic was caused by the Earth simply correcting our errors, as if she loved us in a way and had to punish her wayward child, who with nukes and constant warfare and far too unnatural technologies spinning out of control would have surely destroyed himself and the whole planet along with him very soon.
We were depleting the planet in everyday, abusing her in every violent manner we could think of, exploitation non-stop. And all the while fighting among ourselves constantly, causing greater damage to our one and only environment.
And so, good mother that she was, far above us in understanding and power, she put a stop to our misconduct, our malfeasance, with a slap on the wrist, this pandemic, so easy for her to devise in her creative powers, her cornucopia of combinations of genetic codes.
She taught us a lesson and put us back in our crib, hoping we’d see from our mistakes, setting us back to a state when we were harmless to her and would have many decades to think over it before we once again reached the primacy of numbers and technology to do harm.
We’d have to work together to regain this place in her realm. She stripped us naked again, like the weak and wondering baby we were only ten thousand years ago, just learning how to walk in a way, to build villages, fish and farm and manipulate the beasts around us.
And I hoped we learned her lesson, to tread gently on her soft and tender surface and replace what we took, let it replenish before we took more, a symbiosis, harmony and unity with our brother inhabitants of this house, the creatures she also created for a reason, as a lesson for us, as they all lived in an equilibrium that would continue as long as the sun.
In the following years, contemplating life, watching the babies grow into children and the children into young adults, thriving, enjoying and living off the bounty of our farm, an ecosystem in itself, I knew I had one more book to write, a history with a moral lesson to it, the one we all just experienced, that Mother nature was our parent and our guide in all things and especially kind to us, her favorite but sometimes wayward child, having given us the gift of wisdom, making us the pinnacle of her creations, able to change her world, rule over it, if we did so with the humanity and love that she also infused into our souls.
Five years later, celebrating life. Mellissa-askew