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Fire Season, a Short Story
Diary Entry - Some Day After the End of the World
Here are the events of sometime in May, 2027. Not sure of the day, but it was a few weeks before Solstice, so I know it was May.
I’ve survived a hard lesson: Never, ever follow the crowd. It can get you killed. Well, at least I survived, and unhurt at that. That’s the best luck I’ll ever get during the fire season.
I hated having to travel with strangers. Too many people who might steal from you. But if you’re alone, you will get robbed or murdered or all of the above by marauders. Its easier to steal from people who are carrying supplies with them than risking chemical and disease exposure hunting for those supplies yourself. So I ended up with a group of maybe 100 strangers all headed in the same direction.
Some of them knew where they were going. Some of them just figured sticking with a crowd might lead them to safety. Or, at least, safer than the pandemics they were fleeing.
Juarez, the guy who’d taken the lead, along with a couple of friends with guns. He got the title by having his friends not kill anyone or steal anything. No one liked them when he kept everybody together under watch at night, even those who wanted to leave. But then they shot a mountain lion that wanted to eat a sandy haired guy my age. Then on, Juarez’s friends got paid with everyone’s precious remaining food to keep the rest of us safe. And that was their whole plan.
Until they got to a town that had a local militia they could join or supplies they could forage or who knew what. They were alive and were working together to stay alive, and they thought that if they kept everyone else together, their chances improved, too. Stay with the crowd, and we’ll mostly all make it to wherever the road would take them. Because they were going my direction, I stayed. How I’d break away wasn’t sure yet. Maybe hide in an abandoned town when they passed through and they wanted to go in a direction I didn’t.
There were lots of little towns along these roads, places that had only been filled with old people and migrant workers up `till they refilled with sick refugees. You always stayed in the road or fields. You never go in buildings. It might be filled with living people who might hurt you or dead people whose germs could kill you even if they wouldn’t have.
I don’t know what town it was when others started getting really sick. Not just the people hacking and coughing with colds turning to bronchitis in the hot-cold-wet-dry crazy weather we’re getting. And from all the fires of the cities left by looters put up so much smoke that it rivals the haze over the hills from the wild fires no one has the resources left to fight.
The group stopped for a whole two days, since there was clean water from a hand pump at a roadside rest stop and more people getting sicker who had no chance at all if they had to keep walking with walking pneumonia and maybe SARS.
I kept far back from the campfires but stayed in their light, scared as much of the germs as of the coyotes and human predators that made easy meals on the streams of refugees. Juarez’s friends hunted, bringing in fresh food for the first time in days. It was a safe time to rest and recharge. I wandered near the outbuildings, noting the anonymous graves from an earlier group. It must have been early on, fall 2022, because the people were buried one by one and had markers. By spring 2023, people were buried in mass graves if buried at all. Only one person died in that stay, so I thought we were lucky thus far.
The group wanted to head south, toward an agricultural commune. I wanted to head north, but the fires over that horizon said I couldn’t go that way. On the morning of the second day, a new fire in a lower elevation sent smoke up to the rest stop.
Somebody said there was a creek according to a map he’d seen, and crossing the water would keep them safe. A guy not much older than me doesn’t say anything as everyone else started following the new leader. Juarez’s friends said nothing as everybody packed up and headed for supposed shelter of water. I couldn’t remember why it seemed wrong, but only that following them couldn’t be right. Everyone but me and a lone man rushed for the supposed safety of the creek that might be over the next ridge.
I watched as the other straggler began picking up as much gear as he could carry. Was he just taking advantage of the rapid retreat to get more for himself? Then I watched as he started heading for the outbuildings, almost straight for the approaching wall of flames threatening in the distance. He knew of somewhere to go.
I grabbed my own backpack tighter while watching the looter. After a second thought, I took someone else’s abandoned pack. More supplies equals more opportunity for survival. It would slow me down, but after the fire, they’d be nothing left to scavenge. Then I tried to catch up with the sandy haired scavenger.
I tried to follow as he quickly raced among the empty buildings and among abandoned cars. The post office. A small hotel. A couple of gift shops. I saw him head for the largest building. The sign had fallen off from a storm. Then I saw a smaller sign. ATM. It was a bank. The stranger ran in.
The idiot! People can buy more with dollar store vitamins than they can with a dollar bill! But the smoke from the fire was getting thick. I ran inside, hoping the stranger wasn’t crazy.
He was opening one of the vaults full of safety deposit boxes. He looked at me funny for a minute and then saw my extra back pack. “You give me the extra food, and I’ll let you come in with me.”
“What are you doing?”
“Seeking shelter.” He threw his extra possessions in the vault to free up his hands.
“No time to argue. Food for shelter.” His eyes were on the second pack. “Yes or no?” He had both hands on the huge swinging door and was starting to pull it closed. I literally had moments to decide.
I could hear the fire crackling far too close. If I’d followed the others, I’d be so much further from the flames. “Yes!” I screamed.
Safe and Sound
He pulled a metal lock on the inside of the door. The total darkness was terrifying. I wanted to scream. “Calm down, or you’ll use up the air too fast.” His arms waved about in the darkness until his hand hit my shoulder. “Look. These vaults are designed to keep out would be thieves. Bullet proof and explosive resistant. They are also meant to keep valuables safe. That means fire-proof. If the bank burned down, the vault would still be standing, all the valuables safe and sound.”
“You said air –“
“In case of a bank robbery, bank employees could take shelter in one of these and close the door. If the power was on, there would be an air purifier running so that all the occupants would have fresh air until help arrived. With the power off every where, we only have the air in here.”
“How long with that last?”
“How long can you hold your breath?” A sudden bright light caught me in the face, his flashlight. “Just kidding.” The room started to grow warmer. “I guess the fire’s here.”
“How do you know this is a good idea?”
“Hey. Hiding in one of these things kept me from getting killed in the food riots in Tacoma. Another time, it kept me safe from bandits”
“How did you know to come here?”
“Every town has a bank. Every bank has a vault.”
“How did you find out bank vaults were this safe?”
“Did you work at one?” I asked.
“You could say that.” The room was stifling hot. I reached for the door and found it too hot to touch. “We’ll want to be here until the door cools.” I sat down on the floor and put my head between my legs. “Hey, the fire’s probably already past us. The building will have burned down, but we’re fine.”
“Look for anything of value in the embers.”
“I’m not doing that.”
“Suit yourself. Don’t stop me and I won’t stop you.”
“Did you really work at a bank?” I challenged him.
“Not really. I was a car thief originally. When everybody was trying to withdraw cash because the banks were going to close down– I was there to get money from my account. Robbers showed up demanding cash, and I ended up crammed in a locked bank vault with 30 other people. Everyone else got robbed; a couple of folks were shot. And I was safe. After the first wave of SARS deaths, maybe 1 in 3 dying, I was short on cash trying to buy stuff on the black market. With grocery stores closed by the government so people wouldn’t congregate, where else are you going to get anything? Well, I got into a bank. Lax security, I thought, with the food riots going on and all.
That’s why I’d picked that night to rob the place. Well, somebody had already robbed the bank. Nothing there but an empty vault. Somebody had even left every single vault empty. When the fighting and looting reached the bank, I closed the vault and sealed it like I’d seen the first time. They burned it to the ground – and four other city blocks, too. But I lived then, when a lot of people didn’t. And I’ll live this time, too. And so will you.” He touched the door. “It’s starting to cool off. The fire should be past us. We might want to wait a little while longer to make sure its safe.”
“Is there really anywhere that’s safe?” I asked him.
“Nyah. Maybe that farming commune the others were talking about survived the fire. It’s supposed to be in a barren area except for their farmland, so the fire shouldn’t reach there. No fuel for the fire.”
“Do you think the others will get there in time?”
“Why not?” I asked, angry at him.
“Fire travels fastest uphill. And they had to get over the ridge before the fire did, and then go downhill to the creek. And that creek was a lot farther than you could run and still beat the flames. And the farming valley was a few miles farther than that.” He touched the bank vault door, and his hand remained. Not hot. Then he pulled on the door handle. It opened noisily. I almost collapsed in relief that the fire hadn’t welded the door or led to falling debris trapping us inside.
The building around us was smoking timber and smoldering dry wall. The air was thick with ash. I reached for a kerchief sticking out of the spare backpack beside me. He took the spare pack I’d brought before I could stop him. “I got you shelter. I get the pack.”
“But you have so much already! And I helped carry it. You don’t need –“
“Hey! Shut up! You lived a day longer because of what I did for you. The supplies in that pack will let me live a few days longer. On top of what I’ve already got, I could easily survive another two weeks. You have a chance to live that much longer because of me. And I’m letting you keep your own back pack, with however long that leaves you. Don’t piss me off, or I won’t leave you that much.”
It was then that I saw that he had a gun on his belt. He could have used it, but hadn’t yet. He had saved my life. He was taking that food, my find, really, but wasn’t stealing my own stuff. That was a definition of honor these days, I guess, not killing people for what they had even when they had the chance. Then I had a flash back to a rape attempt I’d barely escaped a few days prior. For the gun I’d lost, and how vulnerable I was now. And he hadn’t even asked for that, in exchange for my life – just food. Memories of the frequent hunger kept my eyes on the pack, my body knowing how light my own load was getting.
“You’ve got somewhere to go. I suggest you get going.” His words weren’t gentle, but they weren’t mean. “Be glad I’m honest, or I’d just shoot you for your stuff and keep all of it for myself.” I couldn’t care enough to laugh at the thief being honest. Not killing me was proof enough he wasn’t all bad.
I started walking among the smoldering ruins. The smoke irritated my lungs, but hid me from those who might be looking for those to pick off. When I got to the nearest logging road, where he could not see me through the trees, I headed north. For all his honesty, there was no reason for trust.
Alive and alone, again. Why did the two always go together? But, hopefully, not forever. I headed on toward the haven, where my cousins were supposed to be waiting for me.
They only family I had left now, out on some relative of their side but not mine’s farm, in the middle of freaking nowhere. Fruit trees overgrown into the forest, and a little house built into a hill, and no power except for the Amish-style punishments of foot treadles and hand cranks. Their plans to hide out there for their year after college, with a few laptops and iPods to burn away the days, had once sounded like a nightmare. No power except rationed batteries. No blogs or Twitter, in case their party got crashed. Lots of fruit and nuts, occasional trapped critters, a “rough living in the woods” book in the making. That was the plan. If the world didn’t end, they’d have a 12 month long epic adventure of techies gone rough written, and a publisher already lined up. If the world fell apart, it was a survival plan.
The only joke was that it was because of Obama’s second term and the terrorist attacks he refused to prevent, not the Mayan prophecy.
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© 2011 Tamara Wilhite