-Stories-

It's suppertime, the last traces of the setting sun fading rapidly, and the group is gathered around the coals of a small fire, kept small and low so as not to attract attention. Martha is putting her outdoor kitchen away, stacking chipped plates and dented pots and pulling a sheet over them as cover, to keep them clean. The new guests ate everything put before them. Martha has seasoned the water used to cook carrots and given it to them as soup, a bedtime snack. Nothing goes to waste.

Brian's slender hands are trembling as he brings the bowl up to his face, slurping the soup repeatedly, still famished. Mark is telling what he heard on the radio before the plane hit rough up/down drafts due to incipient hurricane winds at the shift.

The winds were like a hurricane, but different. Our plane hit some bad drafts. I couldn't hold it. We could hear the radio news guy talking about . .

Cars are abandoned on the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco, which is blocked due to this, but people are flooding across from both directions, a look of desperation in their eyes. An abandoned toddler is crying where he stands, no one bothering to pick him up.

Rioting in cities, where panic stricken people were crowding the bridges, trying to move in both directions at once, just trying to get someplace else, anyplace else.

Looting is rampant, like the LA riots but more widespread in all areas of the city. Fires are everywhere.

And looting in the cities. The police just weren't around, at least not paying attention. No law, and anything goes.

Mark's face is like a mask as he relays all this, keeping his emotions disconnected so he can get through it.

Services were failing. People failed to turn up for their jobs. Power outages went unrepaired. Phone lines went dead. Gas pumps were locked and the stations closed.

Mark pauses a minute, keeping his emotions in control. Mark shakes his head.

A never-ending mid-morning on the East Coast, taking its toll . .

Then Mark's story gets personal.

We saw some of that too, from the plane ..

Cars are littering the road, pulled over to the side, and a bridge with traffic lined up on both sides. Abandoned cars on the bridge had created a traffic jam that was only getting worse as more cars were pulling up at both ends. People were walking in small groups across the land, too, setting out on foot.

Highways and especially highway bridges were blocked with cars that had run out of gas, abandoned where they stood. And all the while we could hear the Earth moaning. I don't ever think I'll forget that sound.

Big Tom nods in agreement with Mark on the sound, and Mark continues.

We heard that religious groups thought the end of the world had come, and lots of people, even atheists, were committing suicide, taking their whole families with them, taking the kids out first, just like that Jim Jones crowd.

Mark leans back, resigned, his eyes dropped to the feet of those around the campfire, as the story gets personal.

Brian and I were overland when it hit .. We lost control, first the compass went crazy ..

In the cockpit of the small plane the compass starts behaving erratically. Brian grabs for their maps as guidance. Mark has one hand on the controls and with the other is shaking open a map, a frantic look on his face. Brian's slender hands are fluttering in now and then, trying to help open the map.

Then the sky started to dance around .. And when the winds kicked in, we had no choice but to land and land quick!

Mark falls silent for a minute, searching his memory for what he might have missed.

We've been to the beach plenty, and I can recall looking out at that broad expanse of water and wondering once what it would be like to have it rise up and rush at me. You know, a really big wave. Happens, after a quake or something.

A large coastal city is in profile and at a distance so that both the water and city have half the view. The water begins to rise on the water edge side of the scene, then raises rapidly, a huge wave as tall as some of the sky scrapers moving toward the city. The wave moves steadily, steadily rising as a tide rather than as a towering wave about to crash down. This is seen inundating the city rather than crashing at it from the side.

The last thing we heard was the radio announcer, screaming. . . It's coming . . "Oh my God, we're all going to drown." Then the radio suddenly went dead.

Netty has been brushing Tammy's hair as she sits numbly, her stony lack of emotion being taken for a quiet nature. Netty puts the brush aside.

We were at the Clearwater Resort, waiting it out as the phones had gone dead and no one knew what was happening. I was up in my room, changing .. I heard a woman's voice pleading .. Not my babies, please, they're so little. Then I heard gun shots, then silence, and slipped under the bed, quiet as a mouse.

Martha reaches across, and taking Tammy's hand, leads her away from the unfolding story.

It was the Groggin brothers. I later realized they'd killed the other guests for target practice when they came up from the fishing hole. Almost everyone went there to escape the heat, you know. I saw them when I went to the barn to get my bay - fishing poles and fish in hand, laying there in blood and twisted in agony. All dead.

Vacationers were walking toward the main house, fishing poles and a string of fish in hand. They were gesturing and talking. One of the guests jerks backward, blood on his face and neck, splattered all over his shirt front. The others get a frantic look on their faces, jerking their heads around to look in the direction of the shot, trying to discern what is happening. Netty says,

I realized they were shooting everybody!

The Groggin brothers were downstairs, getting drunk and laughing about their exploits. Netty lies trembling under the bed, not daring to move.

They were laughing about what they'd done. Laughing. Talking about how people looked when the bullets hit, how they reacted, the look on their faces. Then they'd howl and carry on. I was sick, trembling so hard I was afraid to move. I slipped under the bed, lay there trying not to breath, not to move, not make any sounds that could be heard.

The Groggin brothers now considered themselves masters of the resort they were never welcomed at. They swaggered around, putting their muddy boots up on the stuffed furniture, and raiding the bar and tossing empty bottles at lamps and vases. No phones, no law, and the brothers can do as they please.

.. more fun than moving weed ..

They moved room to room seeing what they could find, looking for valuables. Netty says,

I held my breath when they came into my room, didn't breathe, and they missed me.

Netty slipped down the stairs, cautiously, shoes in her hand and back to the wall so she can see the main room before the Groggin brothers see her feet.

Later I slipped down the stairs when it got quiet. They were asleep, drunk and snoring.

Netty is in the stables at the Clearwater Resort, heaving an English saddle over the back of her big bay, a horse she has brought with her to the resort, her favorite. She is seen stroking its ears after she slips the bit into its mouth, talking to it.

I went to the barn and saddled my big bay. He follows me like a baby after I pet him a bit. Quiet as a mouse.

Netty leads her horse away from the stables, her free hand on the horses mouth now and then, as though to quiet it. Netty leads the horse along a hedge, away from the resort lodge.

I thought I had gotten away, had walked along the hedge where they couldn't see me unless I mounted, and I didn't mount to ride until beyond the trees there.

Then Netty is on her bay, cantering, while looking over her shoulder toward the resort lodge.

But when I was riding away, I thought I saw something move near the house. I figured I'd been seen. They chased me, and there was no hiding as the Sun never went down. I was the only witness to their crimes.

Netty glances around the group, and seeing all eyes on her, attentively, continues.

I was the only living witness to their crimes, and they weren't about to lose me. Dead women tell no tales. But I think they were on a power trip too. Their guns ruled, I guess. These guys are sadistic. Once they got on top, no telling what they'd do.

Netty falls silent for a minute, putting the fear she felt away in that compartment she never wanted to open again. Taking a deep breath, Netty glances around the group to signal a change in the story. Netty walked her bay along the bed of a stream, water up to her hips in places. Suddenly she and the horse were thrown sideways, the horse's legs up in the air and kicking as it tries to right itself. She lands flat on her belly on the water, rises up sputtering and coughing. Both unhurt.

I was lucky enough to be in Clearwater Creek when it hit. I took a dunking, had the breath knocked out of me when I landed, and when I came up all I saw were kicking legs and splashing around. It was a good thing I hadn't been riding. My bay was almost upside down. There were hooves everywhere, but we were OK.

Netty pauses to pull the story together, piecing it together for herself at the same time.

Apparently the Groggin brothers were drunk, loose as a goose. Drunk drivers are always the ones to survive the crash. That was like them.

Netty falls silent again, having reached the end of her story. Netty ends her story with a question.

I wonder if this isn't happening all over ..

Not everyone around the campfire is silent, as Brian has begun giggling, but this goes unnoticed by the others rapt with the stories being told. Brian stares off into space, his face a mask, giggling softly though nothing seems to be funny. Some of the repeated shocks to weak individuals show mental illness setting in - Tammy, who develops symptoms of catatonic schizophrenia, Brian, who says inappropriate things indicating he is seeing another reality and is either hallucinating or delusional. Brian says,

.. Happening to the goats ..

Everyone stares at Brian quietly while he giggles softly to himself, looking off into space, though nothing is funny.

_______________________________

The dim light of dawn shows Big Tom trudging back from the creek, a towel thrown over his shoulder. He meets Red, who is sipping coffee at what serves as the kitchen table now, both men alone as the others sleep in. Big Tom glances up at the sky and then comments quietly to Red.

Seems like this cloud cover is never going to lift.

Red rubs the tips of his fingers together, examining them briefly.

I saw this when I was stationed in the Philippines - some volcanoes have been burping, somewhere.

Big Tom bends over a smoldering campfire, picking up a blackened coffee pot, and while pouring himself a mug of coffee speaks in a quiet voice.

Have you noticed what's happening to Tammy?

Red had been dreading this moment.

I think she'll snap out of it, she just misses her doll house. The way she holds that rag doll of hers, you'd think it was all she had in the world.

Clearly eager to talk about what he sees happening to his little girl, Big Tom is not going to be put off so easily.

She's never been like that, so quiet! I couldn't even get her to talk to me yesterday, wouldn't say a word. Damned peculiar.

Martha steps out of one of the makeshift tents, brushing hair away from her placid sleepy face. She smiles slightly at the two men in her life as she walks over to the fire, flipping open the coffee pot lid to inspect the contents.

I heard you two talking about Tammy. I known she's not right, and if we could I'd take her straight-away to Doctor Townsend, but there's no way what with the roads torn up.

A wailing sound floats through the air, coming from a distance but unmistakably human. Mark bolts out of one of the tents, beating back the blankets that act as the tent walls in his haste. He has a worried look on his sleepy face.

Where's Brian, did you see where he went?

Red points in the direction of the wail, his face blank as though this is nothing new. Mark heads off in haste in that direction, tucking his shirt into this pants and stomping his feet into his boots as he goes.

That's another one who's not right. The other day I found him talking to thin air.

_______________________________

One week later some townsfolk arrive, having walked from the nearby small town. Several people are straggling in the dim dawn, along the winding road that leads past the farm. One of them pulls a wagon meant to be pulled by a pony, hauling another. The man inside is gripping both sides, bracing himself against the jolts, his bruised body complaining at the motion. Herman, a large man in the lead, stops and points toward the ranch house and the others look up, lifting their gaze from the road and then looking in that direction. They move forward with more pep now, taking hope now that they have found other survivors. Big Tom has been watching this procession from where he is sitting at the table with Martha and Red, his hands wrapped around a coffee mug.

We've got more visitors.

Red jerks his head around, and then rises to go off to get his rifle. Big Tom puts his mug down and heads in the direction of the arriving travelers, apparently deciding that by their appearance they are anything but a threat. Big Tom walks with a firm step past the wreck of the Ranch House and out along the entry road. He is approaching with his hand outstretched, recognizing the lead man. The group closes up around Big Tom, everyone is attempting to talk at once. Clara, a thin graying woman, has rushed up to Big Tom. She describes fire from dropping firestorms that consumed one group, the charred bodies found.

They were all burned, as though there was no escape, as though the fire dropped on them from the sky!

Her husband, Len, a thin bent man, joins in.

Don't know where else, as the house was fine, and that ain't the weirdest thing we seen neither!

Clara glances at her husband.

You talking about that man pelted to death?

Len, not accustomed to be displaced as the story teller, jumps back in. Hailstones had killed another which they found along a road, having left his abandoned car. This man's car had shattered windows and a pock marked car.

It was like he was stoned to death, those little stones all over the road, and his car looked even worse.

Clara is too excited to stay silent.

Poor man, looks like he tried to run from it when the windows shattered, and there was just no escape.

Big Tom asks,

These town folks?

Len and Clara glance at each other, but then Clara drops her gaze, looking down at the road with tears welling up in her eyes, temporarily overcome. Len is pointing toward the broken farm house.

Didn't fare any better then you, and those that survived went off just like ourselves, looking for help.

Clara adds more detail, finding her voice again. In the town some who were standing on a broad veranda porch at the time were thrown and dashed where they fell, broken and bloody with no chance of surviving the experience.

Miz Farmington got throwed clear across the creek, up against the flood wall, looked like one a them tomatoes the boys throw on Saturday nights, all red and smashed.

Big Tom hasn't registered any surprise at any of this.

Where are you headed?

No one answers, but after a moment of silence, Herman does.

Anywhere it's not like this.

Big Tom nods in understanding, and invites them back to the camp.

We're not much better off, but we have some coffee and fried potatoes we can share.

Then Big Tom gestures toward the camp and turns to walk back there himself.

Come on back.