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Man of the Frost
The shifting gale force ice-winds revealed a landscape cluttered with abandoned houses, nearly stripped to the bone. Each wreck of a home reminded him of ghost ships embedded in a glacial burial ground.
“I was foraging along the beach houses and I knew something was't right. You know when you get that feeling in your gut? When the hairs stand up all over your neck?
"Well, that was what is like just then. So I put out my smoke and squatted to get a better look.
"There were red foot prints in the snow. Dozens of them. Not good, I said to myself then. Not good at all.
"My nerves were frayed. I'd been stupid to smoke. They might have seen me.
"The foot prints led up to the back door of one the empty houses. We called them ghost ships back then, since they looked like stranded ships in an a ice wave." He looked down. His grandson was hanging on every word.
"I tracked the prints back out to the frozen beach. Looked along the shoreline, then thinking better of it, scanned the windows in the ghost ships.
There weren't any people around. But somebody had foraged my areas and I wanted to know who. Don't forget I was a young buck then and took chances. You shouldn't do what I did, though.
"I figured it was too damned -- darned -- sorry. It was too cold for the gangs to be about. Maybe somebody got lost or was scouting my area, I was figuring. Those big box houses -- ghost ships -- might've got them thinking that stuff was still hidden inside.
"It must've been something back then, I was thinking. Those giant houses all setting out on the beach with all that food piled in, just before the first freeze storms hit. Till they ran out of grub, then ammo, then the will to stay on.
"Your Grandma and I use to drive by those mansions and dream. She'd point up and I'd look -- and drive. She loved those mansions. Ghost ships now, like I said.
"Maybe some of them gangs were squatting inside right now hoping that all these years later there was still some picking left to do. But I was doubtful that anyone was scampering about. The windows were all busted out of the houses and the cold whipped on through making it no place to stay for long.
"No, these people, who ever they were, wanted something in particular and they only looked in the one house, then cut out.
"Abandoned mansions are full of nothing but ghosts and bones, like I told you many times. Often full of traps. Not a scrap of chow, I tell you.
"Anyways, I'd already checked. Busted in the back door and even pried a rusted freezer lid off its hinges. The places had been cleaned out years ago though, and I'd run through them more than once. But it was always good to double-tap them, you know.
"Remember that boy, always double-tap everything in life, if it means something to you.
"Like that time I found that box frozen donuts in a thin ice right out on a table in the middle of nowhere. I'd just decided, for no good reason, to hump though snowfield a second time and there they was, just as pretty as can be. I didn't even need my crowbar neither. You know a crowbar does wonders to ice and thieves, as the saying goes.
"Boy, I am sure sorry that you never had a donut." He shook his head. The kid shifted on his log seat, and was pressing ants with his thumb. The old man raised his voice and the boy's head jerked up.
"Speaking of thieves. That was another pain back then. Maybe these were some and not one of them meat gangs. I remember worrying about that.
"Everywhere you went, someone was fighting you for your scraps anyways. Thin blankets, rancid jerky, even stale smokes was fair game back then. It was give them up or die trying to keep them.
"Sometimes, especially when those thieves had you cold, pointing a piece at your face, which probably didn't have any ammo in it, you'd just step back. You couldn't take a chance like that. No way. Not unless you'd lost your noggin or something. And there was plenty of that going around back then too.
"I'd seen a old lady lose it once." He paused, like something was bothering him. Rubbed his eyes. Then he went on again, but he changed something. Made it more polite somehow.
"She was screaming, that old lady, about a slice of that nasty protein loaf they use to give us off of those FEMA trucks. "You ever seen a FEMA truck? No, don't guess you have.
"Anyways, when the old lady screeched on about needing more of that nasty meal loaf not fit for a dog, I tell you, on account of her sick husband and all, they never even took the time to set her aside and make it right.
"Nope. They just popped her right there. I'll not forget her. Her diabetic kit just rolled out of her pocket and nobody bothered to pick it up. All the diabetics were dead anyways.
"Everybody just stepped right by then, left her dead in the mud, like she was nothing at all.
"What a show, I tell you. Her family drug her off, but wasted no time getting back in line, all quiet like, and let the same FEMA guy who shot their mom, load up their bags with rations.
"I knew then that time was a wasting after that. That we needed to find better ways and fast. Fend for ourselves.
"Oh, and that old lady didn't go to waste either. She wasn't there after a bit and I didn't hear about a funeral. Just red snow, like they'd taken her apart for her own protein I tell you."
The boy looked up. "Cannibals?"
"What do you think, boy? I hope yer Dad don't give me grief about telling you that part. I'll leave it at that. But don't be mouthing off about this story or I not tell you another."
He waited a bit then. The he took up the story again.
"But they stopped the FEMA trucks after a while. Too much nonsense. They started losing drivers to snipers, then the convoys of Humvee's and such, starting vanishing after that. Truck parts littered the roads and body parts too. Things even the rats wouldn't touch.
"Nothing much came after that." He looked up at the gray sky, thinking again. His white shock of hair set off against the cold blue of it. "You'd see long lines of people for weeks -- every day -- looking for the convoys. Until people started dying. I guess that was when even the not so bright ones figured it out.
"That was when we'd got to foraging in a big way. My area, like I said, was a string of beach houses and the shoreline. Well, the shore was a mess of frozen waves, but I got by.
"Sometimes I find frozen fish even, right there in a curl of an ice wave. You'd see crabs stuck at times and they were good eating, but not them horseshoe kind. Not those Sand dollars either. I'd find a frozen dog, now and again, but they was usually too skinny to cook up."
The old man scratched his back. "Arm is getting stiff." He stretched. "I'm old, boy," Then he smiled and that faded back to a frown.
“Before I was charged with my route, there were long trips first. Day trips they called them. When it was warmer. Like not fifty below zero. Then the cold came for real and we cut back when we lost a few guys to the sneak-freezes.
"Them sneak freezes were the real killers. Take a man in a second. Freeze you like a stone, I tell you.
"On some trips we'd wake up and grab our gear only to find that during the night our horses had frozen solid. You ever see a frozen horse boy?"
His grandson shook his head.
"Sneak-freezes had cubed them right up. It was the damnedest thing to see a bunch of grown men crying and yanking at their saddles to get at their grub, only to have the stone froze horse tip on them. We lost two guys that way once.
"But there were dumber ones. One a night this dummy needed to take a leak. One of those cold squalls caught him mid stream we figured. We found him standing there. Solid ice. His arms were broken off. He was like a full color shiny statue, with no arms. I say statue since someone had pulled off his coat and shirt, but left his dignity -- his pants. That's probably why he had no arms I was figuring then. But I wondered what became of his arms.
"I can't get that one out of my noggin to this day.” He paused then. Remembering.
“Anyways, like I was saying, I had simple ideas in those days. Survive to next day. That was it.
"My dad, your great grandpa, always told us about a hand-to-mouth life, but sometimes you just can't help it though. I was still kicking and I still took care of my own.
"So to keep living I kept close in them days. Just did my route and high tailed it home. But home was a sand mine with bad water back then.
"Well, like I was saying, sorry I keep getting off my track...when I found those guys scurrying along the frozen waves like rats, well, that's when I came out of my shell a bit.
It all changed for us then. It was like that first contact thing, but not with them imaginary space aliens, but with them northern folk who knew how to live in the deep cold.
"If it wasn't for them, well you'd not be here. And don't worry about them space aliens just yet, boy. The boy was scanning the skies.
"I'd always lived in the heat, you know. Something you can not recall. Heat like a fire, but not that much, was all around you all the time back then. You got it?
And I was picking oranges and working the fields and such, even at your age. I told you those stories about fruits and berries before, I know. But I wasn't always a picker. And you should have smelled those orange blossoms boy. Man oh man, what a great thing to smell."
He lifted his chin and seemed to sniff the air.
"Sometimes I fixed up cars or bagged food at the market, but always in the warm states – warm places, I mean. You never heard about states, have you?
Just ask Granny. But all of those other jobs I had was when I was older than you are now.
"Anyway, I ended up picking again, when they said the economy went full bust. I knew the economy means nothing to you now, but yer gonna learn. And until the cold came, I was more worried about heat stroke than frost bite anyways. That's all I mean. That people never saw it coming till it was way too late.
"Even I was caught unawares till that morning I found your granny half frozen in the shower. She was blue, I tell you. And we all looked outside and by God it was snowing like hell in Homestead. You know where Homestead, Florida was, boy?"
The boy shook his head.
"Never mind. That'll be on one of your upcoming geography lessons, I'm sure. Granny will see to that and she'll tell you all about that last shower she had.
"Anyways, we had a foot of ice on the ground outside. Not snow. I knew what that was. I'd grown up a bit in Montana.
"We were all shocked, but they just called it a freak storm. It wasn't a freak storm. It came again the next day. Then the next. That freak storm did finally stop, though. And the freak heat came.
"Strangely and this tells you how people can get use to things, we all just put on our coats and went to work. Then when the heat came, we took our coats off. It was that simple.
"Except for you Grandma. She started do all kinds of research. By the time she was done, we all knew the world was changing, not just Homestead.
"Then we noticed that food prices we climbing too fast. Deliveries were late at the stores. Reports of shortages started to trickle in.
"That's when we all begun to pitch in. You never saw such buying boy. We did what we called 'max out' all of our credit cards. It means buying on time -- like a loan. And we was one of the first. And we kept right on applying for more credit at every store. Loaded up, we did.
"But we knew we was never gonna be able to pay it back. After a few weeks of that all the banks closed anyways. Then the cash ran out. Then the bartering went to hell. Then everything went south. I mean even the people from them other states, hell even countries, started to drift south, until the gas ran out.
"Then there was the Great Migration and most of them died. Sorry, I mean when the freak heat came, well, most people headed north. Way north. There were even reports that New York was the new Miami Beach.
"Except the freak heat only lasted a few years, just like your Grandma said. She'd been reading up on some Russian scientist -- a professor in Moscow or something. And a retired NASA guy. Both were talking about the coming Deep Freeze.
"Why you looking that way boy? He shook his head. "So much lost.
"Like I said, yer gonna learn more about the old ways through schooling and your granny.
"Anyway, by then, after we maxed out our credit cards we had canned goods and dry goods stacked to the ceiling at my old house. It didn't last long though and we started to hunt. Then our ammo ran too low so we set traps until they wasn't any game no more.
"Good thing was that we didn't need to run no fridge since it was always plenty cold to keep our meat solid froze. But then the meat run out. And we down right refused the wrong kind of meat. Still do. That kept us going, I think.
"Something happens to a man when he begins to eat other men.
"Well, these guys, the ones I met up with out there on the frozen seas, were bred for the frost they said.
Now I'm getting back to my first story -- when I was checked on them beach houses -- ghost ships. Pay attention, boy. My old noggin wanders these days.
"At first they froze in place when they spotted me. I guess they were more scared than me. But there I was sitting on a froze wave top, butt aching from the cold of it, and they almost shuffled right by on them snow-shoes.
"They were dragging a dark bag too. Probably a dead man, I was thinking then. It had a pink mark in the snow...a long line of pink, where they'd been dragging it. I wondered if I'd screwed up then, thinking these guys were friendlies. If they had a body bag, well, maybe they were hunting.
"Anyway I figured it was them that trespassed my area and I wanted to call them out on it. They saw me and that was a good thing. The last one in line drops to one knee and just stares.
"It took time, but the others stopped too. One of them pulled a rifle out and pointed it at me, so I raise my hands, showing I ain't armed.
"I know'd, it was foolish, but like I was saying, I was getting pretty desperate by then. We were all about dead with starvation, you know. And when your hungry, well, you start to take crazy chances, but you think clear-like too.
"Just then I knew they was scared. I mean, Why would I just pop in on them like I did? I knew I had them spooked. There were wary, watchful, looking behind me. But I played it off and nodded at the distance like I had a posse waiting.
"They were in a bad way. It looked like I had them hemmed up in a little canyon of ice, ridges on both sides. Great place to trap them.
"They played it cool, though.
"I hadn't had chow in few days and my pickings was too slim to bring home then. Your granny and your dad and your aunts was wondering if I'd ever come back. So I went out onto that beach and climbed them frozen waves, followed them red prints from the house, till I found a good spot to spy up on them.
"Now I was here, with an upper hand and chickening out. A rifle pointed at my head.
"Anyways, the one with the rifle, he reads me the riot act, orders me back, but I don't move a muscle. Truth be told, if I had moved, they'd shot me. So I just kept my hands way up there.
"After a few minutes one of them laughs and breaks the spell. It turned out that they were from Canada way and down this corner of the world fishing for tuna. Seems that they were checking for new fishing holes, but got caught in an ice floe or something.
That was horse grits. They were from somewhere else. To this day I think they were looking for something and they had sort of military style. The way the carried themselves.
They needed something in that house, I suspect. That man or women, in that bag.
Now their boat was sitting up in the ice until Spring. Baloney. I didn't believe it.
"They pointed out their boat, but I couldn't see it on account of the gray smog. And I was having a time trusting them anyways since they wanted to leave straight away, like they didn't figure on meeting up with a soul.
"Fact was that they'd not seen a live body our way in a long time. Baloney. They was avoiding us. And they took one of the poor wanderers. That was what was in that bag, I'll bet.
"After a while, the one with the rifle waved me over and talked all funny at me with every other word an “a.” I knew then that these guys weren't locals. They told me something bad though and I've a time reckoning it, even now.
"They said that the entire planet was a frozen heap a snow and ice. That I was damned lucky to still be kicking.
"Florida is where we are now, you understand but back then I was a couple of hundred miles north of here. Near a place called Bonita Beach. Back in the day is sure was something. Pretty as hell.
"Anyways, those guys told me that the scientists had been warning about the coming Deep Freeze for a long piece, but nobody wizened to it. They had politicians yacking that it was all about a coming heat wave or something, but that weren't true. Not exactly.
"One of them seemed to have a German accent and still another, I thought was Russian or something. He had those squinty eyes, like he was a half Chinese or Mongolian.
"Everybody thinks that them politicians knew all along and are spending the Deep Freeze in a luxury resort down Panama way, to this very day. That's why they called it 'Global Warming' back in the day and not the coming Ice Age. The governments and a few of them rich fools were making plans to survive, I tell you. And if they told everyone of us that it was gonna be hot, well only fool would head south."
"The old man scratched at his scruffy beard. "Funny thing though, it did actually warm quite a bit before the ice came. I figure that's why a lot of folk headed Canada way. It got so bad they even called Canada the 'U.S. of Canada' for a piece.
"Even then Mexicans headed to Canada then. Only, when the cold snapped at them, well, it was too late to come back. That's when the Great Migration started in reverse. But this time few made it south.
"Anyways, it turned out them Russians were one of the first ones to figure it, then some NASA guy got wind of it and tried to show that them politicians were full of it. That's what they let on about.
"And it was all true. Nobody knows what happened to them 'Whistle Blowers' after that. Once that giant sunspot opened on the sun, hell even I knew we were in for Deep Freeze or something bad when the sun is not cooperating.
"Don't worry, Granny will teach you some ancient history stuff about how they use to dust the guys that tried to help, back in the day. Point is, be careful when you tell the truth. Most people have their own truth and won't like yours. Especially if you scare them. And a cold freeze that would wipe out America? Back then that was just unpatriotic.
"But back to the ice waves and those guys I was talking at. It didn't matter no ways, they said. The only hot spots now were over-peopled places like Panama and parts of Africa, that weren't nuked to all hell. Chile was warm, but nuked to hell, just like all the best places left on earth.
"I had my doubts. I still do. I think there are bunches of government types holed up in the places that they say are nuclear wastelands.
"You didn't want to go to those places they said. It was best to hang tight, live off the land – froze out or not.
"But I bent their ears then. About how we were on the skids. How we would not make it much longer with the bit of grub we had stashed. And they seemed to care, which was something back then.
"I was just delaying the game, so to speak, looking for an in. I was gonna snag their grub if I could. Do what I had to do.
"It took me some time to sorta make my mind up about what I was gonna do. I mean I had my crowbar tucked in my coat sleeve and I didn't see any guns except the one rifle. I started to work it in my head that I was gonna take the guy with the rifle first.
"Luckily, one of them taps me on the shoulder and hands me a map. He explains where I am, while my gloved hands shake with cold. He looks back at the others and tells me not to let on that he gave me the map.
"I almost killed him then, but something stopped me. The map, I was thinking. A rare thing. Best of all, he points me to a cove down the way and says something I'll never forget. He says shellfish. He had a spot circled in red on the map. I shoved the map in my pocket and nodded to him. Decided not to bang his brains out then."
His grandson's jaw dropped as it always did in this part of the story.
At seven, he still imagines the world before the Deep Freeze, how the big cities must've looked, before they became the frozen canyons of today. How the great ships plied the waves, when they were not choked with ice bergs, and when great metal airplanes carried people all over the world.
His grandson had never known the hardship, the mass starvation, the battles, the roaming gangs or the deep cold. All his grandson had ever known was plenty and how to grow mushrooms.
A small warm cove, fresh water and abundant sea life. A place found hidden beyond the dead mangroves and just out of reach of the last of the mean life. All thanks to an accidental meeting with some strangers over fifty years before.
One stranger in particular willing to give up a fishing hole in a odd-ball warm spot. They said it was a volcanic thing. An undersea warm spot.
“But how, Grandpa, how did the world freeze?” his Grandson asks again.
He lifts his claw like hand, points the one working finger at the cold glowing ember in the afternoon sky.
“There. That ball of sun let us down. Old Sol,” he said. “Grew cold by just a few ticks. A big black spot formed on its belly. But Granny tells me its gone now. Should be warming up soon and then maybe I can take you on a little trip. Maybe see the real beaches again...
"Murphy!" It was Christine.
"Uh oh, Grandpa, Grandma seems mad."
"Nope, she ain't. Just happy."
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© 2016 Jack Shorebird