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Fiction: Solar Storms 2012 Part 2

Solar Storms 2012

by Ted Howe and Shirley Swift

Part II

 

“Hey! Wouldja’ look at this!” One of the men yelled from the window.

Most everyone crowded toward the window. Three men with rifles were nearing the gas supply tank.

“Now what?” cried one of the women.

Jim said quietly, “Now nothing. We can’t shoot at them. They’re too close to the tank. We might miss and the whole tank would explode.”

Bill shook his head. “We shoulda’ kept watch after sun up too.”

Sally’s eyes were huge. “We’re going to freeze to death!”

Jil ignored her and went over to Aunt Gert’s cot. The older lady had been sitting there quietly. “Are you okay this morning, Aunt Gert?”

“Sure, child. Just conserving my energy. You know there’s nothing we can do but let those thieves take the gas. God will punish them.”

Sally came over and sat on Gert’s cot. “Is God punishing us too?”

Jil took a deep breath. Sally was so annoying.

Gert answered, “Did you do something to be punished for?”

“Well, I don’t think so …”

“Then think before you say things. There are children here.”

Sally was tired of all this ‘making nice’ and trying to be positive. There was nothing to be positive about. Stupid power companies couldn’t even keep the grid from crashing.

Bill got antsy and yelled out the window at the men. When they didn’t leave, he shot way over the thieves’ heads. The trio laughed and one shouted, “shoot again and we’ll torch the tank!”

Jim saw the color rising on Bill’s neck. He put his hand on his friend’s shoulder preventing him from shooting again. “Back off.”

Larry called to Ron, “R.J. is on the ra-did-eo!”

Ron forgot about the short tempers flaring. He felt incapable of doing anything to make things better anyway. Talking to R.J. would help.

“Hey kid – how’s the farm? Come back,” Ron actually sounded cheerful.

“We’re weather-locked today. Guess I won’t be there until tomorrow, Dad. Come back.”

“Okay. You be careful. See you then.”

Larry took the mike but didn’t bother to add “come back.” Nothing else was going according to protocol anyway.

Ron looked out the window to see the men escaping across the drifted parking lot with their 5-gallon gas tanks.

Bill and some other men were preparing a list of guard duty hours. This would not happen again.  They got a closet off the wall, and struggled to get it close to the gas tank. It would be shelter from the wind, which had been dying down anyway. The fuel would be guarded in half-hour shifts until they could all leave.

The group opted for a cold meal, except for keeping the coffee hot. The guards would need something to warm them up as the temperature had not risen past freezing. The teens sat around talking, some “learning to communicate without their thumbs” according to Aunt Gert,

“Texting is so much easier,” one gal said.

“No duh,” chimed in a guy.

“LOL” one of their Moms laughed, rolling her eyes, and was joined by everyone within earshot.

Jil brought Ron a cup of hot coffee-colored liquid. He thought about how he ground coffee beans every morning and used twice as much as he needed just so he’d have that special hefty brew he liked … that way he could justify putting a lot of cream in the cup – to cut the strength of the coffee. They went to sit by Aunt Gert again.

“I’m glad R.J. will wait until the weather is better.”

“Me too. I’m not sure the roads will be passable for days though.”

“Oh, Ron, really?”

Ron bobbed his head slightly.

“If he’s worth his salt, R.J. will bring the sleigh,” Aunt Gert smiled.

“Didn’t think of that, Gert,” Ron answered.

“He has a farmer’s heart,” Aunt Gert smiled even more broadly.

“That would be a hoot,” Jil smiled in return.

“Three adults, the driver, and two cats. Can the sleigh hold all that?” asked Ron.

Gert answered, “Does he still have my dad’s sleigh? It will hold 6 plus the critters and other stuff we have.”

“Great. That means we can take two others with us – if anyone wants to go, that is.”

Jil glanced at Jim. He was alone, unless you counted Sally – who was alone also. If only she would lighten up and have a more positive outlook.

“We could use another military man,” Ron whispered to Jil.

“R.J. …” Jil began.

“… is only one man with a gun. I’d probably shoot myself if I’d have to use one.”

“Oh, Ron – let’s pray it won’t come to that,” Jil said quietly.

“What are you two whispering about?” Aunt Gert interrupted them.

“Just talking about that sleigh ride, Gert,” Ron quipped.

Before long members in the group were walking their pets in the pet latrine. Ron actually apologized to his cats when he took them into the room. Men took half hour guard duty shifts and there was much pomp at the changing of the guards. Some actually were enjoying it. They sensed the camaraderie of being in a tight situation together and how to survive they would have to each help.

One of the older teens claimed he would be like a BuckinghamPalace guard and not move a muscle for the entire duty. Of course the others cooked up ways to get him to fail.

Just before the group settled in for the night Ron decided to go over his mental checklist of his supplies, including two flashlights, several batteries, a few candles and matches, Jil’s CPAP machine which wasn’t being used, and 8 cans of meat and potatoes.

Jil watched him and said, “It’s a good thing Pri-Mart had that sale last week. Otherwise I’d not have had all those cans of stew.”

The group decided to have an early lights out and by 6:00 p.m. it was dark outside and inside the cafeteria only a few lights shone. The gas generator was chugging away and Ron realized that the fuel was one of the most important survival items – water was the first.

Two men were on guard duty – one outside in the closet near the tank, and one “on deck” just inside the door as another look-out. He’d help the outside man come in and get warm and then take the next half hour shift. A new look-out manned the door and so on was the plan for the night. About 6 a.m. the lights flickered out. Many were still asleep, but for those who were not, they understood the implication. The fuel was gone.

Ron and another man had been on guard. They came into the dark building, their flashlights bobbing ahead of them.

Ron shook Jim’s shoulder to wake him. “Fuel’s gone. We’d better wake everyone up and move together for warmth.” Jim sleepily agreed.

“Good idea,” Larry chimed in. “I’ll see how much battery power I have left.”

People were too drowsy to protest much. They had strung mylar blankets up for privacy and these came down and were fashioned into a tent-like enclosure. Soon everyone was huddled together; some seated, some lying together on their cots.

“Dear Heavenly Father,” a man began with a slow, steady voice. “Please protect and speed the National Guard here with fuel this morning.”

There were several “amens” and except for Larry’s muffled voice in the background trying to raise someone on the shortwave radio, all were quiet.  Soon, he joined the group.

“Well, the Guard can’t promise anything. We’re on our own for a while.”

Bill asked Larry where the boiler room was and the two of them left the group. When they returned they laid out a plan.

“We can take some of the pipes apart to make a make-shift chimney. There’s plenty of metal waste bins. If everyone helps, we can burn chairs for heat.” Gert shook her head in agreement as did some of the other older folk.

The students there began a wild chatter about how much fun that would be. Jim grinned listening to them all. It would be a lot of work.

A few women volunteered to make some breakfast while all of the men and the younger women went on a search for items for the make-shift fireplace. Before long there were several rows of wooden chairs being stacked up outside of the mylar tent.

Larry had suggested they bring in the steel dumpster so it was wheeled in. It was half filled with paper to recycle anyway and a fire would be easy to start.  The dumpster fit under one of the windows in the cafeteria and a few furnace pipes were put into vent holes and made to fit into the half-opened window. Most of the paper was taken out so a controlled fire could be made.

The entire operation took about an hour and by that time there were canned fruits and bread and peanut butter crackers for breakfast. Coffee would be made in a short while – the top of the dumpster worked like a good stove top.

Hammers smashing apart wooden furniture for fuel made conversation almost impossible. But it kept the children busy – the teens smashing, the younger ones dragging pieces to the fire.

Bill and Jim took charge of keeping the blaze to a safe size and the area did warm up. The mylar tent was moved again to surround the dumpster, at a safe distance, and the cots and a few tables inside kept the group at about 55 degrees.

Sally moved about uncomfortably, stating she wasn’t used to doing everything in a coat and gloves. Gert commented, “Be glad you have them.”

At 8 a.m. R.J.’s voice was heard on the short-wave. “Hey Larry, you got your ears on? Come back.”

Larry laughed, “You got it, R.J. – got my ear muffs on too!”

“I am just starting out from the farm. It’s finally light enough for the horses to see.”

“You take your time and be watchful. I’ll tell your daddy what’s going on.”

Jil had come up behind Larry to listen. She noticed the men had become very casual in their transmissions. No “come backs” were being said.

“Tell him we love him,” Jil said.

“Your mom is here – sends her love.”

Larry switched the radio off. He looked at Jil. “Gotta’ conserve as much battery power as I can.”

She patted him on the shoulder and smiled and nodded her head. There was no wasting anything – energy, fuel, food, water.

She walked the short distance to the ladies locker room. It smelled something fierce. “Any port in a storm,” she thought to herself. They were using the toilet and force flushing it with jugs of water. Soon, they wouldn’t be able to use the water for that – they would need it to drink instead.

Ron and Jil met in the hallway going back to the group. “R.J. called. He’ll be here in a while,” Ron told her. Jil just shook her head “yes.” She didn’t have the energy to tell him she had heard him on the radio.

Two women were singing a duet when they got back to the group and a couple more joined in. They took turns singing songs or telling short stories. From time to time someone would tend to their pets or visit the bathrooms. Eventually though, they would all congregate around the dumpster heater. The school board would not be happy when they saw all the damages.

By 11 a.m. Ron and Jil had packed their belongings and Ron called Jim over. The two men walked out of earshot to the others. “We were wondering if you’d like to come to R.J.’s with us.”

“That’s a good idea. R. J. ‘n me know about survival. We could …”

“Jim, do you think this situation is a survival situation?”

“We’re burning chairs in a recycle dumpster. You decide,” Jim looked at him seriously.

“Got me there. So, what about the farm?”

“Yes. Not sure how to tell Sally.”

“The sleigh will hold 6 people. R.J. and Gert and Jil ‘n me ‘n you are 5.”

“I’d rather take Bill, but I think he wants to head north to his brother’s place.”

Sally walked over to where the men were talking. Ron noted she didn’t respect the fact they wanted to talk alone.

“Jimmy, are you coming by the fire?”

Jim put his arm out and Sally melted against him. “Do you want to go to Ron’s son’s place with me?”

“Oh … that’s a long way out in the cold.”

“Your choice. You have 10 seconds to decide. From the commotion over there it sounds like he’s here.”

“Okay. I’d rather be with you than here.”

“Good, get your stuff together, use the latrine, and be ready in 5 minutes.”

With no other comments Sally made a dash for the restroom. Jim went to talk with Bill. Gert and Jil met R.J. at the door. He had driven the team partially into the bus garage and left them with one of the guards.

He warmed himself by the fire as everyone gathered for news of the outside. Larry greeted him as well and they talked quickly about the situation at the school. R. J. turned to the crowd. “The power grid was damaged. It may be weeks before it is fixed.”

“How can that be?”

“How do they know that?”

“Is anyone fixing it?”

“Are there any phone lines working?”

R.J. shook his head and raised a hand. “One at a time, please. I am getting word from the Armories at Iowa City and Mason on my short-wave. Yes, they are trying to find ways to alleviate the situation. The power outage is all across the Midwest and extends westward. Some parts of the Eastern coast have power. It’s very strained right now though. The northern states are screwed. Mexico and Texas and Arizona are hard-hit too. They don’t have to worry much about heating, but the population still needs electricity.”

“Like everyone else in this country,” muttered someone.

“They can’t pump gas and of course there’s no communication.”

R.J. looked around to see his dad and Jim and a woman standing there with satchels. He waved them forward as he continued to address the crowd. “We’ve got to get back. I suggest you contact anyone you can to get you to a safe place. The school won’t support all of you here.”

“Can you take my family?” asked one man.

“Sorry. I’ve got my family here and we’ve got to get going while it is still daylight.”

Jil and Gert started toward the door. R.J. took Gert’s bag and put his arm about her waist, practically carrying her. She didn’t like that, but understood why he was doing so.

“Jim isn’t part of your family. Why don’t you take me?” another man shouted.

Jim looked at Ron. “This may get ugly. Let’s get while the getting is good.”  He took Sally’s arm and hurried her toward the door. They were going through the door toward the sleigh while others were grabbing their belongings and trying to catch a ride.

Ron and Jim helped the women into the sleigh as R.J. untied the horses. He thanked the guard as Jim took out his pistol.  Some of them were rushing toward the group. “Don’t make me use this. Let us pass!”

They stopped short and some issued curses at them as R.J. pulled the team around and out of the garage.

“Leave us alone, you losers!” Sally shouted.

Jil shot her an angry look. “Shut up. You’ll just anger them more.”

“Who cares?” Sally smirked. “We’re out of here.”

A snow ball sailed past her head and she ducked down. R. J. had to hurry the horses to get away from the school.

Ron sat on the seat next to R.J. and as they slowed their pace somewhat he asked, “How was the trip here?”

“Wish I could say uneventful. There were two groups that were threatening. One was right on the outskirts of Iowa City and another about 30 miles out. We’re going to have to get by them again.”

“Did they have weapons?”

“No, otherwise I might not be here. They wanted the horses.”

“Jim has a gun,” Ron said soberly.

R.J. nodded toward the floor in front of the dashboard. “How do you think I got away from them?”

Ron realized R.J. had brought one of his rifles. Forty-eight hours made quite a difference in his life. “I just can’t believe …”

“Dad. We talked about this. You and Mom have had months to prepare. I’m just glad we’ve come this far. I think we have a good chance of getting through it alive.”

Ron sat back and didn’t say anything for the better half of an hour. His son was right. He refused to believe that anything could ruin his life in this day and age.

“I know what you’re thinking,” R.J. started. “But, it’s because of our lifestyles and how dependent we’ve come on others that we’re all in this pickle.”

“Obviously not all of us,” Ron answered and smiled at his son. Yes, he’d done a good job raising the boy. “You use the brain God gave you.”

“And the determined genetics you and mom gave me,” and he clicked to the horses to quicken their pace.

Ron looked back at Jim and nodded. There was a group of people ahead and Jim readied his gun.

“Take the rifle out and just hold it up. Don’t point it at any body,” R. J. instructed.

Ron bent over, got the weapon and put the butt on the seat next to him to steady its weight. He got a head rush bending over while still moving and was concentrating on staying alert when a large man jumped out from behind a snow drift and grabbed the lead horse’s harness.

R.J. deftly cracked the whip over the man’s back and he cried out but didn’t turn loose of the harness. R. J. hit him again and then the horse’s rump who jumped forward, shaking the man loose. The horses were capable of running a lot faster and R.J. urged them on. He had not been driving very fast just to conserve their energy and strength for moments like this. Others ahead got out of the way.

“Poor bastards would probably eat the horses,” R. J. spit out.

Ron didn’t say anything. He had the nervous urge to pee and realized he really wasn’t a good defender in a pinch. Thank heaven for guys like R.J. and Jim.

A few miles down the road and R. J. slowed the team in a large clearing in the road until they stopped. “They need a breather. Everybody watch the horizon. I don’t want to be sitting here if more people are around.”

Sally had been quiet. She finally realized what a dilemma they were in and she had no way of defending herself. She could be killed, or worst yet, raped. People were not being very civil, she thought. Civilization depended on modern conveniences it appeared … and enough food and water … and shelter. She began to weep, this was really bad.

Ten minutes later the group moved on. They were about an hour away from the farm and R.J. was anxious to know his family was okay. He and Nancy and their eldest, Tom, had taken gun safety lessons together. R.J. didn’t need anything like that because of his Marine training, but he wanted to make sure his wife and son knew how important the classes were. Sammie, the seven-year-old was shown the workings of the rifles they kept in the house – how to tell if the safety was on, how to load them, how to not point at anything you wouldn’t be willing to kill.

Frank had put on his winter survival gear, grabbed his shotgun and muzzleloader, and headed over to R.J.’s farm just after the younger man left for the Quad Cities.  Not wanting to be bothersome, Frank sat down next to a stump at the tree line and watched R.J.’s home.  About three hours later some figures emerged coming up the road and Frank caught the glint of a shotgun amongst the group.

“Son of a bitch,” Frank mumbled standing up and circling around behind the group now knocking on R.J.’s door.  Out of sight Frank flashed back to his Vietnam days and was prepared to defend R.J.’s home.  But, the meeting at the door was cordial and Frank heard the familiar voice of his neighbor Henry and he slunk back into the woods, keeping an eye on Henry and the other figures.  Soon Henry and the others walked back down the road and stood watch as if waiting for R.J. to return.  Frank quietly crept through the trees, not wanting to startle the group.

He called out before stepping out of the woods. “Henry!” Frank bellowed.

“Damn, Frank you scared the beejesus out of us.”

“What you doing here, Henry? R.J.’s gone.”

“No power at my place, Frank. Gonna’ see if R.J. will team up with us.”

“Not prepared huh?” Frank spat out.

“Not like you and R.J. Got supplies here in these bags.”

“You waiting for R.J. to return?”

“Yeah. Nancy said she heard from R.J. and he is on his way back with his mom and dad and aunt and a couple of friends.”

“You gonna’ stay here till they return?”

“Yup.”

“Well, I am gonna’ head home then,” Frank said turning and leaving.

“Damn, that is one scary dude,” Henry’s hired hand, Ralph said.

“He ain’t bad,” Henry said. “Good to have around in a bad situation,” Henry said as he watched Frank disappear into the woods.

R.J. turned the horses off the main road a few miles from his place. He didn’t want anyone to know they were there, nor did he want them to be led to the farm. The track narrowed and from time to time a lower branch made the travelers duck into the sleigh. Eventually they all just leaned against each other and scooted down in the seats.

Soon, the farmhouse came into view. A thin wisp of smoke was rising from the chimney and all looked serene. R.J. smiled inside. It was a beautiful sight to him.

The farmhouse was on a hill and it was next to impossible to approach it from any direction unseen. He had chosen the place as a fortress just for situations like this. His in-laws said he was paranoid but Nancy embraced his concerns. Still, there were bands of thieves going out every day – looting stores and homes. No amount of preparation actually prepares you for the real thing when starving neighbors attack you.

They were able to sit upright now. Sally was disappointed. R.J.’s place was not the expected ranch home she imagined. It was a rambling old farm house surrounded by barns.

The horses, instead of calming down became more agitated. They knew they were close to home and strained against R.J.’s holding them back. “Take it easy, boys,” he said quietly and they were underway again. He leaned over to Ron and said, “Watch really carefully.”

Jim stood up behind Ron, holding onto the seat for balance. He knew the remaining distance could be the most dangerous. Suddenly a group of figures were silhouetted ahead. Their rifles were pointed towards the ground; not cradled in their arms the way Jim would have rather seen them.

“There they are.” He turned to the rest of the sleigh and said, “Everybody down.”

The leader held up one of his hands in a peaceful gesture and R. J. had to make a quick decision to stop and maybe endanger everyone or to become part of a coalition.  As he neared he recognized Henry, his neighbor, so he slowed, much to Jim’s consternation. “What the hell?”

“I know him. Just be ready,” R.J. said.

“Hey, Ronnie,” Henry said quietly. He put his gun down at his feet as did the other two men. There were three women and three younger children as well, huddled together. “I talked to Nancy about an hour ago and she told me you’d be home soon. We have a lot of food between us and would like to join forces if you’ll have us.”

R.J. looked at his dad. Jim just shook his head, but Ron nodded “yes.” It became more and more difficult to hold the horses back.

“Come along, Henry. There’s room. Let me get these horses put up and we’ll all get settled in.”

“Thank you, Ronnie,” Henry said and turned to his group. “Head toward the house. Hank, come help with the horses.”

Henry and his son, Hank followed the sleigh toward the barn and Ralph, the hired hand helped the three women and two little boys and a girl trek to the house.

Gert smiled. She knew how Nancy and R.J. loved renovating her father’s old place – old, yes, but sturdy as hell and equipped for winter warmth with the large cook stove in the kitchen and a full sized fireplace in the living area. They had re-connected their old well and had a hand pump in the porch. The shutters, which she noticed were shut, were 3 inch-thick functional window covers – not just fancy decoration. Yes, they had hunkered down for the winter.

Nancy was at the door, and eventually Gert and Jil and Sally were unloaded with the bags of meager supplies. The cats were very upset by the time they were unloaded. After Ralph made sure the women and children were in the house he headed out to the barn as well.

R. J. unharnessed the team. Hank started brushing them down as Henry and Ralph got hay and oats for them. Ron felt a little out of place but he watched, hoping to learn how to take care of the team as well. Nancy had broken through the ice on the water trough so they could drink so Ron started bringing buckets of water to the team.

The house was accustomed to housing large family gatherings for holidays and harvesting.  R.J. and Nancy insisted on keeping a lot of the features that others would have discarded as antiquated. The huge back porch entry was big enough for everyone’s overcoats and boots. There was another room where R.J. kept his weapons and ammunition in a 6’ high gun safe. The men were invited to hang up their weapons but Jim opted for holstering his Glock 19 and keeping it on him.

It was at least 65 degrees inside the kitchen and a large turkey was just coming out of the wood stove’s oven. Gert praised Nancy up and down over how wonderful it all was. “R.J.’s grandma would have been so proud of you!”

Sally uncharacteristically said, “It’s just like Thanksgiving and we have a lot to be thankful for.”

Jim smiled. She might come around yet.

R.J. got on the CB to let Frank know he was home. He talked about his trip and the desperate people trying to steal his horse and he mentioned this lady Sally he brought back.  Someone Frank might like – she’s a spit-fire.

Frank just laughed his hearty laugh and thought, “Yeah, right.”

There weren’t enough chairs, so the men took their plates of food and leaned against the wall. The kids sat on the floor and they let the women sit around the table. Several were already eating before Gert got their attention. “I want to say something first.”  Everyone stopped eating and looked her way.

“Dear Heavenly Mother and Father. Thank you for our safety and our provisions.”

“Amen,” Ron said loudly and everyone dug in again.

They ate their fill, with Henry and his group eating a large amount. It was certain they had not had any hot food for a while. They all took their plates to the stove and put them in the soapy water. Every scrap was saved. The back porch served as a good “refrigerator substitute.”

“We need an organizational meeting,” R. J. stated. “Gather around. First of all, this is my home – so it will be my rules. I’m appointing Jim in charge of protection – guard duties, etc. He’s experienced.”

Jim nodded and said, “You got it.”

“Henry, you are in charge of hunting; and scouting if we need it.”

“Hank and me ‘n Ralph can do that.”

“Good. Dad, you and I and Tom will be in charge of the animals. If you don’t remember, I’ll remind you how to milk the cow.”

“Okay, Son,” Ron answered. Tom just nodded.

“Ladies, you, need to watch the kids and prepare the meals. We need to take an inventory of everything we have and be careful to not splurge on anything. I don’t mean to be sexist, but this arrangement is necessary for a while anyway.”  No one disagreed.  Sally thought, who wanted to milk a cow anyway?

“Latrine duty.” There were several groans. “Hey, it’s part of life,” R. J. continued. “Every adult is in charge of themselves, unless there is some physical reason you can’t navigate the stairs.”

“Speak for yourself, Ronnie,” Gert chimed in and several chuckled.

“Moms and Dads – take care of your kids. There’s a small room just to the left of the basement stairs. Use the pots there and empty them into the large barrels by the outside stairs. There’s a barrel filled with disinfectant and water there too. Wash the pots out and empty that too. It’s cold enough by the outside stairs there won’t be much of an odor for a long while.”

“And you’ll find the cold will help you hurry through the chore quickly,” Nancy added and others laughed, helping make the reality easier to take. “Clean up your own spills. If you don’t, you will end up on total latrine duty.”

The back room in the basement has a dirt floor – that’s where the chickens are for now. One more odor you aren’t used to, but it means eggs. The young kids rake the floor every day.”

“One last thing,” R.J. continued. “No one, and I mean NO ONE goes out of the house alone. And at least one must be armed at all times.

We’ll take shifts sleeping so everyone rests. We only have four bedrooms, so between the 18 of us there has to be a lot of cooperation. Plan on being here at least two to three weeks.”

Some sighs were followed by low murmurs but they all understood they needed each other to survive.

“We have camping gear stored in the loft. If you men can bring it in, we can make up a great bunk area in the living room,” Nancy commented.

Henry said, “We’ll get the gear.”

Gert spoke up. “We are not only going to survive – we are going to survive well.” This was greeted with smiles and comments of “that’s right,” and “you bet.”

Henry and Ralph suited up and while they were putting on their heavy boots, Jim said he’d go with them.  He made sure his Glock was easily accessible in his heavy gear.  It took about a half-hour for them to take down the camp cots that had been stored in burlap bags. All the while Jim scanned the horizon in all four directions. He noticed a wisp of smoke to the West and would have to talk with R.J. about that.  When they returned to the house, R.J. was on his short-wave radio.

“You got that, big guy. Come back.”

A gravely voice on the other end of the conversation was laughing heartily. “Glad you’re all okay. Let me know if you need anything. Come back.”

“Right back at ‘ya, Frank. 73s.”

“That was Frank – long time friend and neighbor to the West. He was checking on us.”

“Must be the smoke I saw that way.”

“Right. He’s a dyed-in-the-wool survivalist. I’ve learned a lot from him.”

“Thought Afghanistan was your teacher,” Jim replied.

“No, it was my testing ground.”

It didn’t take long for the bundles to be unwrapped and the bags to be folded and stored in the outer room. They would sleep dormitory style until they got more into a routine. The boys and men would be downstairs. The women would share two of the rooms with the girls; Gert would have the smallest room to herself, and R.J. and Nancy would stay in their bedroom.

There would be a person on two hour guard duty shifts through out the night – one downstairs and one upstairs. The sleepers would have to get used to the fact someone would be walking through their rooms to look outside twice an hour. Privacy was a word that went out the door with the collapse of the power grid.

A few days later Frank was out scouting around his property and R.J.’s. Not wanting to scare anyone he hung around just inside the tree line.  Upon arriving at R.J.’s he watched Nancy and R.J. and the new gal Sally walking around outside.  Mesmerized with the lady, he stepped out of the woods.

“R.J.” he bellowed.

“Frank!” R.J. said whipping around, shotgun at the ready. What’s up?” R.J. asked walking up to him.

“Just scouting.”

“See anything?”

“Yeah, who’s the lady?”

“Her?” R.J. said smiling “That’s Sally”

“I want to meet her.”

“She’s all wrong for you, buddy — high maintenance.” R.J. said laughing.

“I’ll be the judge of that,” Frank said looking at Sally. “Call them over, R.J.”

“Ok – I warned you,” R.J. said laughing and motioning to his wife and Sally to come over.

Frank and Sally hit it off right away.  Frank noticed the lady was not afraid of his “Mountain Man rugged look.”  In fact, to him she seemed a little taken with him.

The following days saw the group settle into an awkward routine. The mornings were used for cleaning up the place and baking. It seemed really strange to roll barrels filled with their own waste out behind the barn while having an armed guard escort. The only entertainment was listening to Gert’s stories, playing Candyland with the youngest children, and cards and cribbage with the adults. There was time set aside for quiet and also for keeping weapons cleaned and ready. Tom and Hank kept the wood boxes filled. They both carried weapons when they went out – just because they could.

Every couple of days Frank would swing by R.J.’s house and Sally would come outside and they would talk for hours while walking around the property or going into R.J.’s barn to get out of the wind.  Frank would show her different herbs and animal tracks and Sally would seem interested in everything. Everyone gathered around the short-wave for Frank’s 9 a.m. calls on the days he didn’t visit. He always mentioned the kids by name and warned them about a wolf sneaking around.

During those weeks R.J. reported to Frank what he had heard from the Iowa City Armory and gave him the reports from the National Guard about the power grid being tested. Others were not as fortunate as the group assembled at R.J.’s farm though.

It was mid-way through the third week of the power outage that the National Guard said another solar flare was headed toward Earth. R. J. reported this to Frank via the shortwave radio.

“Great,” Frank responded.

“Well, they hope to restore electricity before the electromagnetic energy hits again.”

“You know, today is the first day of winter.”

R. J. jokingly replied, “According to the Mayans this is dooms day.”

Frank commented in his gravely voice, “I don’t think so, pilgrim!” And he laughed.

The next day the lights flickered on and the group shared a good laugh and many murmured praises and thanks to God. The rest of the day they talked of making plans to get back to their homes. R.J. took his dad aside. “You know, you won’t be going home if another solar flare happens as predicted. We’d better wait a couple of days before we head out.”

Ron shook his head. “Was afraid of that.”

“Well, don’t let Mom get her hopes up too high. Nancy understands.”

“Okay,” he began as the lights dimmed. Knowing looks passed between the men as both Nancy and Jil joined them.

“We’d better shut everything down we can,” he said to Nancy. She nodded.

“It’s going to be a while, isn’t it?” Jil asked.

“Yes, Mom,” Nancy answered.

The power was on and off intermittently for the next three days. The predicted solar flare reached earth and plunged the area back into darkness. It was Christmas Day.