Dawn broke, the sky’s gray cover giving no indication to the day’s weather. Rick woke with Melissa still on his lap. The pain and sorrow of her death continued to grow as he gently set her down on the hardwood floor. Rick aimlessly walked around the house, not knowing what to do. He paused at the small table downstairs, noticing the empty plates arranged for last night’s meal. Placed in the middle of the small table sat the empty blue and white ceramic flower vase, as empty now as his heart.
He found one of the orange buckets labeled ‘Meds’ and unscrewed the white lid. Rummaging around inside Rick found the yellow-orange translucent prescription bottle of Percocet. Taking two, he went back upstairs, his heart and mind absent of rational thought.
Knowing that he would have to bury Melissa, Rick found a flowered sheet, one he thought Melissa would have liked. Kneeling next to her, he brushed her hair and wiped her face, as tears began to flow again. Tenderly he wrapped her, tucking the ends neatly. Lifting her and then carefully proceeding to the back yard garden, Rick started to dig.
Every shovel full lifted from the ground, took from his soul the joy and love of his life. Lowering her into the grave, he smoothed the dirt over, sat down, and then lay across the freshly turned soil, crying.
Thoughts of the recent past flowed through his mind. The nuclear attack, and the loss of his family, country and now the loss of Melissa…Rick could find no reason to go on. He knew there was nothing to live for, as everything he loved and touched was destroyed. Voices in his mind screamed at him, cajoling, prodding and pushing him to end it all.
He went into the house, pausing by the empty kiddie pool with the dark blue sleeping bag…the bag which they both lay in. Lifting it to his nose, he tried to get a hint of her scent…nothing. He dropped the bag back into the pool and decided to end his miserable life.
His plan was to fortify himself with alcohol and Percocet, put the pistol in his mouth, and then it would be over…just like Ira. Rick and Linda didn’t keep alcohol in their home. Thinking about where he could find some booze, he remembered that his next door neighbor Marlene drank alcohol.
The aged cedar fence, separating their back yards splintered from the impact of his boot. Kicking out six slats, Rick crouched through and burst in to her yard. Politely he knocked on the back door, no reply. The door was unlocked, and he entered. “Marlene…it’s me, Rick.”
The smell of the dead filled her house. Lying on the kitchen floor was Maddie the elderly and loving beagle. Rick stooped. “Hi girl, sorry you’re dead.” He touched her head, trying not to disturb her distended body. “You were a great dog. Maybe now you can get that rabbit?”
In times past, they would laugh as a rabbit had dug a hole in Marlene’s back yard beneath an azalea bush. This rabbit must have known that Maddie couldn’t catch her, although she tried every day. The noise of that beagle running around baying at the scent, trying to catch the bunny was comical.
Rick stood and went through the cupboards, finally finding a bottle of Irish Whisky. Twisting off the top, he took a drink, coughing as the alcohol shot back up. Again he took a swig, this time his throat accepted the whisky.
Rick went in to Marlene’s living room, smelling the death from upstairs. Walking upstairs Rick called out, “Marlene, it’s me Rick.” He opened her bedroom door, finding Marlene and her girlfriend Donna in bed. Both women’s faces were blackened and their bodies bloated. He could tell which one was Marlene and which one was Donna, as one had blonde hair, the other brunette. Rick pulled up a chair, sat down and took another drink. ”Hey Marlene, I just wanted to say that you were a great neighbor. As a matter of fact, you were the best neighbor I have ever had.” Taking another swig and continuing, “Let me tell you what’s happened…”
Rick spent the next hour talking to his neighbor’s body. Spilling his soul about the loss of Linda and the kids, meeting Melissa and her death…and how he killed the cockroaches.
With no food in his stomach, two narcotic pain killers and alcohol, Rick’s words began to slur. “Alright Marlene, I’m going to go…I’ll see you soon.” Standing, he weaved from drunkenness. Stumbling down the steps and out the front door, he stood in the parking lot. With the whisky bottle raised in one hand and his pistol in the other, he yelled a challenge.” Hey you assholes…if you want me, here I am. Take your best shot.” He fired a round to the sky. “Come and get me!” He said as he fired off the remaining rounds, the empty brass making clinking sounds as they bounced across the asphalt.
Staggering up his front steps, he again tripped over Laci’s bike, the training wheels catching his foot. Falling, he caught himself and saved the whisky. “Laci, I told you a billion times about moving this bike.” he said, laughing drunkenly.
Inside the house, he bumped against the sofa, tripping and falling. Getting back up, he looked at the empty pistol. “I need some bullets.” He slurred, and started to go down to the work shop. At the top of the stairs, Rick felt an unseen hand shove him forcefully forward. Tripping, he tumbled down the flight of steps, crashing his shoulder and cracking his head hard on the step, landing in a drunken heap. He blacked out.
The setting sun brought warmth to his face and body. Sitting on a park bench next to a formerly well used gravel road, he felt complete, and at total peace. Behind him a squirrel barked at an interloping blue jay. In front, stood a very large willow tree, the long thin branches reaching down from a great height, almost touching the ground.
He heard gravel crunching along the path, looking to his left, someone was riding a bicycle slowly towards him. This person on the bike, dressed in a bright red and blue pants and shirt with a white protective helmet smiled at him, saying, “Hello Rick.”
Rick nodded, his words didn’t come easily. This woman knew his name; he thought that was strange as he had never laid eyes on her before. Behind the bike, she towed a small bright green trailer, the type parents used to take their youngsters on an afternoon ride. The bike stopped and out of the trailer a small child also wearing a white protective helmet emerged.
The boy reached beneath his chin and unsnapped the strap, removing the hard hat. “Hi Dad.”
“Jake…oh, Jake.” Rick recognized his two year old son.
The boy ran to his Daddy and planted himself on his lap. Rick hugged him, smelling his fresh skin and kissed his cheeks. “How are you son?”
“Great Dad…how are you?” Jake said looking up with his big brown eyes glimmering.
“Not too good buddy….I miss you. I really miss you.”
“We miss you too Dad.”
Rick paused and held his son at arm’s length, “Wait a minute…where’d you learn to talk?”
Jake smiled “Dad, I’ve always been able to talk; you just haven’t been able to understand me.”
Rick laughed. “Well, you got me there.” Rick gazed at his son, “Jake, what am I doing here…and what are you doing here?”
“I’m here to help you Dad.” He paused and hugged his father. “Look, you know that things aren’t too good right now, right?”
“Not too good? That’s an understatement.”
“Don’t do that again Dad.” Jake said seriously.
“Do what Jake?”
“You know, try to kill yourself.”
“I’m sorry…I just thought that was the only way out.”
“Look Dad, everything you’ve gone through, and everything we have gone through…is all part of the plan.”
“What are you talking about?”
“There is a plan Dad…it’s all for a purpose and is not an accident. He wants you to know that you are important to Him.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You will in time.” He nodded to his father, “Ok?”
“Here is what you are to do…” he paused and continued, “…get moving.”
“That’s it? Get moving?”
“That’s it.” The two year old paused and then added, “Do you remember the train set you bought for me?”
“The one with the wood tracks that locked together?”
“Yeah, that’s the one. I really loved that train.” he paused and then made his point. “Now, you would build it in different shapes. It was easy for you, however, when I tried, the tracks didn’t fit right, and I got frustrated and mad, then I would cry and throw the pieces.”
Rick smiled and nodded at the memories.
“So you would take one or two of the pieces and change them…then the track was fixed. It’s the same thing here Dad…do you understand?”
“I think so…but I don’t know if I can Jake, I’ve lost…”
Jake put his tiny index finger on Rick’s lips, silencing him with his touch. “Listen Dad, we know you’ve lost a lot of people that you love and care for. Those people aren’t gone; they’re just in a different place…with us.”
“But, the pain....” He stammered as the deep sorrow stared to arise in him.
Jake put his hand on Rick’s chest. “He has taken your pain away…you can now go on. Daddy, there are others that need you…He said that you’ve been prepared for this time, and that you would know what that means.”
Rick didn’t know what He meant, but he knew that the crushing pain he felt moments earlier had vanished.
“There’s just one other thing Dad…do you remember what you told Melissa in the shelter, about the people either being good or bad?”
“I remember…did you hear that, or did someone tell you?” Rick said, concerned about what else was seen or heard.
Jake looked at his Dad, and didn’t answer his question, which in itself was an answer. “You were right about the people Dad. Help the ones who need it…and the others…just don’t let them surprise you again.” Jake said wisely.
Rick nodded, he felt self conscious about the shelter, and guilty about his lack of diligence at the house. “Ok, son…thank you.”
“Jake, it’s time for us to leave.” The woman on the bike said.
“Ok Miss Lydia.” Jake said
“Jake, who is that woman? How did she know my name?”
“Everyone knows everybody’s name here. That’s Miss Lydia, she’s really nice.”
Rick looked at the woman, “You take care of my boy, ok.”
“I will, and you take care of my husband,” Lydia said. Her strawberry blonde hair, tied in a pony-tail, looked to have a dozen shades of the most stunning red hues Rick had ever seen.
“I don’t know your husband.”
“You will, his name is Buck Barker…you tell Buck that I love him and miss him, and to trust,” she said, her eyes sparkled like the sun’s reflection on an autumn lake.
Crunching gravel diverted his attention, two other bicycles, identical to Jakes approached. Two women, aglow with a radiance which defied conventional beauty, rode by side by side, both wearing white helmets talking and laughing. They were abreast of him, Rick recognized Melissa and Linda. Both looked at him and smiled. Melissa winked and blew him a silent kiss. Rick felt his heart melt, as only Melissa could do.
“Hey Daddy!” a girls voice sounded.
Rick looked over as his daughter Laci was riding her pink and yellow bike. “Look Dad, no training wheels!”
“Laci…good job girl!” Rick smiled broadly.
Laci parked the bike and both children ran to Rick and threw their arms around him. Rick hugged his children, and looked each one in the eye. “I miss you guys so very much.”
“We miss you too Dad.”
“Tell me…was I a good Father?”
“The best…you were the best, Dad.”
Slowly he opened his tear filled eyes. Lying on the tiled floor of the basement, and feeling the searing head pain from the fall and the alcohol, Rick slowly sat up. His pistol lay on the floor, the slide locked back, empty. Next to the handgun was the half empty bottle of whisky. Rick picked it up and caught a whiff of its contents. “Ugh…no more of this shit.”
Groggily he stood and went into the work shop, dumping the bottle out into the laundry sink. Holding his head, he found the orange bucket with the ’Meds’ and opened a pack of Ibuprophen. Swallowing two, then another two, he started a pot of coffee. The coffee perked happily in the stainless steel camp cooker. Pouring a cup, and then taking a loaded magazine for the pistol, Rick went back into the family room and loaded his gun, placing it in the holster. Walking up the stairs, he found his cigarettes and went into the living room. Blood stains were still on the floor, as was his rifle.
Slinging the Garand around his shoulder after reloading it, he stepped onto the front porch. Lighting his smoke, Rick sat on the step, drinking his coffee. He noticed the dead kid’s feet sticking out from behind that car. Setting his coffee down, he went over to the kid and collected the AK-47 and his spare magazines, taking them back to the house.
Rick questioned what happened. ‘Was it a dream? Or just some drug and alcohol induced illusion?’ He lit another cigarette, and paused. Laci’s bike was missing, except that the training wheels lay on the ground where the bike was. “What the hell?” he said out loud.
He tossed the half smoked cigarette to the ground and went back inside, dumping the spare weapon on the floor with the others. Walking briskly through the house he went to the patio. Taking large steps he went to Melissa’s grave, everything was untouched. Scratching his head in confusion and hangover, he turned to go back inside, stopping dead in his tracks. The kiddie pool with the blue sleeping bag was filled to the brim with water. Rick looked around the backyard, “It didn’t rain…where did the water come from?” He questioned out loud.
Back inside and down into the family room, he lit the kerosene lamp and sat in the recliner, trying to sort it all out. Finding a yellow legal pad and pencil, he jotted notes, starting from the beginning. With a difficult problem, this was Rick’s method of breaking it down and hopefully finding a solution. It worked for him in the business world, and survival plans made before that day.
He spoke out loud, “Question…If I were to move, no make that, when I move out…what should I take?”
The list started to grow, and as items were added and then crossed off, he started to see problems, and then solutions to those problems. Three pages later, he began to tire. Closing his eyes, he drifted off to sleep. His resting mind would sometimes give answers to a problem. Rick woke from the nap, making another pot of coffee and a meal.
Back in the recliner, he tore out the pages and tossed them on the floor. “I’m thinking all wrong…instead of what I need, I should figure out what I’m going to use to travel, and that will give me an idea of what to take.” The list was now a page and a half. “Way too much stuff.” He said, frustrated. “I could never get all of this into my pack.”
Setting aside the food, weapons and personal items he felt was needed, the next question was, “How do I get from ‘Point A to Point B?’ Truck?” He began to answer his questions out loud, “Even if I could find one that started…the roads are clogged.” He closed his eyes and relaxed, thinking about his kids and seeing them again. It was then the answer came…a bike. Taking the paper and with added excitement, he wrote.
Running upstairs, he found the phone book’s thick yellow pages. Moments later ran his finger down the many listings for ‘Bicycle Retailers’. Finding the closest one, he recognized where it was located, next to a seafood shop where he used to pick up shrimp and crab, when their budget allowed for it. He smiled and muttered, “Just like the train set, right Jake?”
Dumping out the pack and adding some tools, along with a crow-bar and bolt cutters. Rick ran some figures through a small calculator. Estimating the value of silver and what a bike with a child transport would cost, he filled two socks with the coins. Looking at his watch, it was early evening…he would leave before daylight for the three mile hike to the shop. The battery powered alarm clock still worked, he set it for 2am, and took another nap.
The buzz of the electronic alarm, another pot of coffee and a quick bite of food, Rick started off. The neighborhood was pitch black as the stars were obscured by a high cloud cover. Rick set off without the aid of a flashlight, his eyes adjusted to the dark. It was quiet, eerily silent. The only sounds came from his boots crunching the gravel and his breathing. Taking every short cut he knew, he arrived at the strip mall well before daybreak.
Adjusting the small headlamp, he turned on its red light, preserving his night vision. Walking around to the rear of the building, he figured out which was the correct rear door. This steel door was not to be broken into. Rick thought on the way over that he was about to do something that a common criminal would do, breaking and entering. He justified his intent by bringing along what he calculated was an appropriate amount of silver to pay for the bike, but still, the act of breaking and entering weighed heavily on his mind.
Around to the front and the glass door, Rick used the crow bar to break the door’s glass. The sound of it shattering reverberated along the strip mall loudly. Crouching down and stepping through, he found himself in the deserted business. Setting down the pack, he wandered amongst the displays of bicycles. Looking at the price tags, he was amazed at their prices. “Damn, these are expensive bikes,” He said quietly.
Finding one that looked sturdy and was mid-priced, he wheeled it into the back room. Next he started looking at the boxes of child trailers. Too many choices he thought, and he had no way of deciding which one would be the most reliable. He settled on two, one that looked like a Lady Bug, and another which was neon yellow and green. “No tactical post nuclear trailers, in camouflage,” he said and laughed at his own joke.
Deciding on the yellow and green trailer, he dragged the tall, narrow and heavy box into the back room. Working by flashlight he assembled the trailer, taking longer that he thought it should, due to the poorly written instructions. Once finished, he sat back and rested as it was now daylight.
With the trailer and bike connected, he gathered some accessories. Spare tires for the vehicles, tubes and patch kit with a pump. He left the two bags of silver and a note. Apologizing for the shortage of funds and the broken glass, and offered an IOU for the balance…along with his name, should the owner ever meet up with him.
Leaving the mall, with his pack inside the carrier, he started to pedal. It took a while before he got used to the gears and the physical action of riding. Quickly, he worked up a sweat, slowly dodging the stalled cars in the street. Reaching his house by taking the main streets, Rick felt naked out in the open, he was a slow moving target for anyone who wanted target practice on a human.
The trailer had a quick disconnect mechanism, he separated the bike from the trailer and moved both inside. Now he could concentrate on filling the trailer with supplies.
Starting with a clean sheet of paper, Rick listed the most important categories he would need. The list included, Essential Foods, Essential Hydration, Essential Weapons and Ammo, Essential Personal Items and Hygiene. The last category was Non-Essential/Pleasure.
He decided that two of the five gallon buckets would be the main storage containers. The foods were not a challenge, as he had a variety of rice and bean meals, canned meats and fruits. The target was to have enough foods to last fourteen days.
Water was a completely different subject as there was no way for him to carry enough water for fourteen days. He remembered this subject in a book he had read, Rick took some time, finding the book and reading again about how to filter nuclear fallout from water. The other orange paint bucket would work for this purpose. Rick drilled six small diameter holes in the bottom of the bucket. When needed, he would fill this bucket with a mixture of dirt and rocks, which would trap the particles. He would then use the water purifier which they used in the shelter, to sanitize it further.
Deciding which weapons to take and which ones to leave was difficult. He chose the Garand and both of the .45 caliber pistols, along with the .22 pistol. He planned on having more than enough ammunition, figuring that if the load was too heavy he could jettison some to lessen the weight.
The bike and gear were coming together nicely. Rick felt that he could survive for two weeks, without food easily enough. The only issue remaining…what to do about the house? With all the food and weapons and other valuables left behind, should he torch it…or just leave everything and hope that when someone finds it, they need it and can use it. With the guilt of his breaking and entering at the bike store fresh in his mind, he decided to leave the house as is. He moved everything back into its original place, hiding the weapons and ammo, and the remaining silver.
From start to finish, the preparation of the bike and gear, took two days. Rick was now ready to leave. He felt excited about the unknown journey but at the same time anxious about what lay ahead. Finishing a final meal at the house, he slept.
Waking with a fresh excitement, Rick boiled coffee and had some breakfast. It took an hour to take the bike apart, remove the gear and then reassemble everything out in the parking lot since the carrier wouldn’t fit through the front door. Taking one last walk through his house, he spoke aloud; “Let’s see, spare parts for the weapons…axe and knives sharp…sunglasses…” Rick tried to think of anything he might have missed. He snapped his fingers loudly, “Toilet paper.” He bounded upstairs and picked up two rolls, “Won’t do very well without this, will I?”
Rick went out to Melissa’s grave. “Well babe, I’m leaving now…I wish you were coming with me, we would have made a great team. I love you,” he said.
Jake was right, he felt no pain now. It wasn’t as if he didn’t miss her, he did…but the pain and sorrow was gone.
Starting out was tough, as the carrier held it’s maximum amount of weight. His pack was strapped on a metal bracket over the rear tire, which Rick had to modify. Within the first mile, the bandana over his forehead, was filled with sweat which dripped down his face, stinging and burning his eyes.
Rick soon thought that maybe the bike was a mistake, and he should have walked out with just the pack. After reaching the town of Perry Hall an hour later he felt good, realizing that it would have taken a lot longer on foot. The road was littered with cars, forcing a zigzag route. In certain sections of roadway, cars were piled into each other, requiring him to use the sidewalk, or someone’s yard. It was unnaturally quiet. He knew there had to be some survivors, some people who made it through. Moving along slowly, the smell of death still permeated the air.
Passing through the town without incident, he reached the tall wood sign marking the limits of Perry Hall. The road still had plenty of vehicles, however the distance between the abandoned and dead cars grew, which made his riding easier. Occasionally he glimpsed someone dead inside a vehicle, but most were empty. The road went from straight and flat to rolling hills. Heading downhill was a pleasure, even with towing the trailer. It was the uphill that wore him out. His first hill was in the lowest gear and half way up, he had to stop and push. ‘Take your time Rick, this isn’t a race,’ he thought to himself.
Rick guessed that he had traveled about fifteen miles and looking at his watch, saw he had been on the road for five hours. Approaching the town of Bel Air, he decided that he would break for the night there…after one last huge hill. Making a challenge of this hill, he slowly pedaled trying to reach the top without stopping. He progressed about walking speed, no faster.
Reaching the top, he felt great, tired and completely wore out, but good in that he had reached a goal. Maybe that was the key, make small goals and then reach them. Smiling at his accomplishment, he was in deep thought.
“Stop right there! Keep your hands where we can see them,” a male voice commanded.
Rick didn’t have to do much to stop the bike, just stop pedaling. Instantly he was surrounded by five camouflaged, armed individuals, their weapons leveled at him.
Rick slowly raised his hands in surrender.