The nightmare began when I woke up. It was probably the droning noise of the engines that did it, but high up in the sky above me, burning like a long smoldering log, was the SS Belmont, like an aircraft carrier of celestial Doomsday, and it had already passed over and beyond me. It was spraying huge jets of water down on the scorched earth below it.
The Belmont had been equipped with jet cannon to shoot either water (as it was doing now) or liquid jellied naptha (napalm) in flaming streams, down upon any area of land it targeted which its captain had thought might need it. Her reputation preceded her wherever she went, and wherever she went, it was usually to leave in its wake some 300 yards on either side a zone of uninhabitable, devegetated, depopulated land covered in a residue of toxic ash. How I managed to survive I do not know.
Immediately as I had recovered my sense of being alive, I ran to the house of my friend Mrs. Baker, a black woman I had known for many years. Yes, somehow her house was still standing, and somehow we had been spared the fate of so many millions this year. We were both alive.
She invited me in and made me a cup of dandelion and chamomile tea. I thanked her.
“This just be the shit, son. They up there jes’ tryin’ a’ scare us this time. Ain’t no fire, they jes’ raining on ever’ one.”
I looked at my clothes and realized only then I was soaked to the bone. Perhaps I had made a bad choice in choosing to sleep out on The Rock that night, but then, how would I know we had been in the path of the Belmont, chosen some weeks ago by the folks up in Virginia? The government folks who were supposed to be keeping everyone safe, but instead, had been secretly given a mission to rid the nation, in as many places as possible, of “extraneous population” living in areas deemed “economically insufficient to produce capabilities attendant to domestic export product”.
It was true, that here in Farragut County, we didn’t produce much of anything that might justify, under the new laws, our continued existence as members of society, except for some cotton, which was runty and small this year, and some okra, which was all small, tough, and woody, within weeks of blossoming, and the few cornfields there were had been stripped off early on by clouds of locusts, leaving tattered silks and ears with not a kernel left to dry for our silos.
I looked at Heddie, and she looked old and frail now, although she were only in her thirties, like me.
“Things have really changed for our country, haven’t they?” I asked, speaking a little rhetorically. There would be only one obvious answer to that question.
“Son, they sure have. I tell you when I was a girl, we nevah saw so much as a single fed’ral agent, we nevah had no trouble with the tax man, ever’one in this county we did all we could fo’ ourselves, an’ the guv’mint lef’ us all alone. Now...”
Her voice trailed off into ambiguity. I didn’t need to press her to say anymore, because really there was nothing to add to the despair with which she seemed to resignedly sigh.
“What happened to us?”
“What you mean, what happened? To us in Far’gut County, or to the country? Lawd, child, this country somethin’ else now. I don’ even rec’anize it. Use to be a girl could stand up fo’ hese’f, get an education, and be somebody. Now ain’t nobody be a somebody but them folks up in Virginia, and other places roun’ the Cap’tal. I don’ know who decided it evah, at firs’ — but someone did. Tha’s all I know ‘bout it. An’ I can’t even write my frien’s up north in De-troit, ‘cause ain’t no way I gonna send them a email even, cause wit’ the guv’mint watchin’, I don’ think I can even say anything they gonna wanna hear, you un’nerstan’?”
I understood that, too. We had been sentenced into a limbo world, all of us in the “Extraneous Population Zones” that had been declared in the Acts of 2085 which put us, actually, in the status of exiles inside our own nation. The government had stripped us of our rights to participate in any programs (other than the Full Employment Program) and some of us, without the old USDA Food Stamps, could rely only on our humble vegetable crops- that is, if home gardens hadn’t already been outlawed in the counties we lived in. Luckily, Farragut County had not come to that, yet, like Franklin, next door. Over there in Franklin, the only legal stores one could shop at were huge warehouse-like places where the food that came in had been trucked up from places like Mexico and Chile and there was really only two companies any longer that was the “food industry”— Monsan- gee I can’t even say the name, they make me so mad— and Gen’rul Mills, and I guess the General must be off somewhere millin’, because in all the Extraneous Zones, wasn’t noplace anyhow for a farmer to take his grain, if even the weather had let him grow none, this year.
Like I say, it was bad juju for everyone in Farragut county, but Heddie Baker and me, at least we were happy to be left alive!
Now my thought turned to the Belmont, and its evil sceptre, and asked Heddie what she thought about it.
“Oh, that thing! That devil-ship! Lissen, child, that thing ain’t nothin’ but a manifestion of a demon! I heard ‘bout it firs’ las’ year. Have me a cousin up in De-troit says it came by her town and lef’ nothin' but blocks and blocks of burnt up houses, bodies piled high, ain’t even had the decency to pour the water on them when it lef’ to cool it all down. Says Beulah, “That thing killed at leas’ 20,000 people in one af’noon, an’ flew away like it was”—well, you know son, you saw it.”
Yes, indeed I had. The sight of the Belmont, once seen, could never be forgotten. It dominated the sky with its sheer size— as long as three naval aircraft carriers— and the inner chambers, glowing with heat, reminiscent of a yule log, and yet pouring out no smoke, only glowing within a white-hot frame, and large metal plates that contained the inner chambers while not quite white, more a brilliant orange, and when it threw down its looping jets of napalm flame, it seemed nothing less than a gargantuan dragon, built on a massive scale though, and truly intended to do no less than spread terror on behalf of the government it served. What I didn’t see this morning, I seen on government films on cable-tv, and they were bad enough.
“Wasn’t long ago we was fightin’ terr’ists, not bein’ them,” she said, adding a sort of, “uhhuh” to that as she took a sip of her tea.
“I saw movies of it last year. I am glad it didn’t decide to burn us.”
“No, but you know that that rain they pump out ain’t jes’ water, do you?”
I hadn’t thought of that.
“Tha’s right! It got that chem’cul stuff in it! Ain’t nothin’ gonna grow roun’ here in Far’gut County now, I’m a feared.”
I looked down at my wet clothing. “And me?” I couldn’t say more.
“Lord, child, I feels bad for you. We ain’t even got no clinic here no mo’ since they des’nated us. You best get outta them clothes, fast. Look, in my room I got some stuff from my old husband, Ted, in th’ closet. You try em on and see ef any of them fits you. He ain’t gon’ be back for any of ‘um.”
I mumbled “Thanks, Heddie” as she dragged me by the arm into her bedroom, opened the closet door, and showed me a rack full of men’s clothing— overalls, shirts, jeans, all hung from hangars with clips, and all looking like they could be a full two inches too long. I aimed for a pair that looked short enough, and pulled the chemically soaked ones off. The pair of pants I had chosen was still a little long, but it weren’t no two inches. I was happy with them. Then I took a shirt, an old, fading, fraying blue denim thing, and I chose that. The sleeves hung halfway over the back of my hands, but I just rolled them up, and I was happy.
“Well son, it’s been nice knowing ya. Reckon you gots maybe a week before the chem’culs kick in. Then...”
She didn’t need to say more. Right away, I began thinking about some things. Did I have a will ready? Yes, I did, although as a resident of one of the Extraneous Zones, it was not legally binding, and anything I had could be grabbed by the State and IRS anyway. What it said was, most of my stuff (my truck, my shotgun, my fishing tackle, and my bank accounts) was to go to my cousin Quail. Quail lived in the next county over, not Franklin,but south, in Calymra, and I guess I could call him up and we could say goodbye and all, and I could leave it all in his hands, then he could just drive back home when I finally kicked bucket, and he’d have all my good stuff, and I’d just be a dead dog in a ditch.
So what I did was this. I called Quail. He said he was real sorry to hear what happened, but he had heard the Belmont was comin’ over a week ago, didn’t I?
“I woulda cleared right out of there, Paul, yesirree, if that thing hadda been headed my way.”
“Well, my neighbor Mrs. Baker never heard nothin’ either. Maybe they din’t announce it here...”
“Well, we down hear all heard about it... We figerred anyone in the way was gonna hear about it. Too. Real sorry to hear that. Well you wanna what?”
I explained to him what was in my will and all, and he agreed, OK, he would come up to see me, he’d leave with the truck, too, he just had a tow hitch put on his, so it were nothin’ to drag it back there. The furniture and all he could probably fit in the back of his, of course, the shotgun and fishing gear he could take in the cab.
He told me he could be there by that night, so I started cleaning up.
Out went all the papers having to do with my ex-wife, and our divorce— all that was just there so I might have it if I needed it, and I wouldn’t need none of that no more. I had a case of beer, still, me and Quail we could work on it all week long. I figgered since I was gonna die anyway, wasn’t no use keeping my liver healthy on account of my kidneys, or nothin’, no more, so I set fit to be tied. I had the beer.
When Quail showed up, he had a fifth of Jack with him, too, so it was a good tradeoff, and my liver wasn’t gonna be winner no how anyway. I did my best to lay sheets over everything so Quail wouldn’t touch nothin' if there was toxic dust on it, and when I made food, I was sure to serve it on paper plates that came outta the sealed packet, too. We had ourselves half a ham on that first night alone, and I guess by the time I was done with the stuff in the pantry, there wouldn’t be no goin’ back to the COSTCO for more, either.
On the second day, we still had at least a quarter of the beer left, and we went down to Lake Aggachokie to fish, caught ourselves a couple of gar, and a sucker fish, an’ we took em home and ate good. Quail told me stories about how used to be that when him and his friends used to go to Aggachoke, it was all full of small crappy and stuff, wasn’t no gar or nothin’ like that.
“Maybe it’s cause of the Runaround, reckon,” I said, and he nodded.
We ate them gars and saved the sucker fish for the next day. By that dinnertime I guess I was beginning to show a little. Seemed I had some purple spots on my arms that got bigger the next day. For sure they was not going away! And I felt a little woozy and ended up napping a lot, while Quail he jest put the stuff into the truck, slowly, but surely, he left the place with nothin' but my bed, and a stool so he could sit by, and the cross that hung up on my bedroom wall, so I could see that when I finally saw the last of ever’thing.
Now the fourth day was my worst, maybe, cause when I tried t’pee, everything came out a sick blue color, almost. I mean it wasn’t quite yeller and it wasn’t green, neither. It was sore, too, like maybe I had the clap, but I ain’t been with nobody since I broke up with Sue Jane, and besides, with the blue spots on my arms I knew I was a goner now for sure.
When the fifth day ended, it started to get me, the cough. They say the cough is the worst of all of it. When it hits you, it’s like the worst thing, cause it’s like a sneeze you can’t stop, a tickle in your throat that you can’t get ridda nohow. And I did have it. I tried to rinse it out with Jack and beer, but it was like to choke me. And on day six I swear, if it didn't look like Quail had tears in his eyes from all this, too, because whenever I coughed, and it was like, every other minute or so, he could hear the phlegm stating up in my lungs. Soon it was bloody, too. I tried to spit up only into the basin that he put by the bed, but sometimes, I couldn’t help it, and I would run to the bathroom and spit it in the sink or the toirlit.
On the seventh day I knew I was done. Quail he held my hand, he looked at the cross with me, an’ he sang a few songs, too, songs we ain’t sung since we were kids in Sunday School. I guess the last thing I remember was