It was a Time of Changes for all of us.
For me, my second wife Mary, my three kids who lived too far away in Virginia, for the entire nation.
We all feared this Change, so deeply we barely mentioned our fear to each other. We yearned for normality. Yet the Change was irrevocable and undeniable.
Giant meteors crashed to Earth. The Northern Lights shimmered above Chicago. The monsoons came too soon in Asia. Fall refused to pass into Winter all the world over. And the birds--the birds flew every which way, neither north nor south, but in confused circles, as if they too were uncertain in which direction lay normality.
Beyond nature, the continental power grid fluctuated wildly, worse than during any sun spot peak. Cellular phone service to far places didn’t work. The new space station dipped from orbit, the victim of inexplicable “drag.” Food riots convulsed much of the world as crops failed. Governments fell and rose and fell again. Planes disappeared when crossing the oceans. Or had their autopilots sizzle and pop when they passed above certain “holy” mountains.
Things electronic seemed most affected. Trains still worked. Cars worked. Horses always worked.
My wife Mary understood the Change early on, thanks perhaps to her Wiccan beliefs.
I didn’t. I’m an archaeologist, a scientist and a rationalist. Pattern and order are the rules of my universe.
The phone rang, demanding instant obedience.
Instead, I looked through my study window, the one that opens onto the valley bottom below our old, gap-toothed barn and good, rich pasture.
Outside, the dark green coastal oaks of Oregon swayed in the wind, their leaves not yet ready to die. The contorted oaks covered the hillside like an army of dragons-teeth, a cluster of brown bark, moss-green leaves and droopy Spanish Moss that conveyed an air of weariness, as if they had seen all that the Ages could offer.
The oaks hung on stubbornly.
Like me. Like Mary. Like many rural folks not cursed with the Get Rich Now desires that ruled the cities, where lemmings filled the streets and they weren’t four-legged.
The phone rang again.
Brrr-ing. Brrr-ing. Brrr-ing.
I turned back to my old Macintosh computer, its color screen littered with arcane squiggles that told a fanciful story of asteroids, space ships, black holes and aliens.
Sighing, I picked up the landline phone. “Hello?”
A questioning voice echoed over a squealing, squawking, hollow-sounding transcontinental phone line, calling my name. The voice belonged to Doreen, my ex-wife, mother and custodian of my three children. They all lived in Reston, Virginia, within spitting distance of the D.C. Beltway.
“Hello, Doreen,” I said calmly. “I’ve been trying to make my weekly call for three days now, but couldn’t get through. May I talk to the kids?”
Silence. The line squealed into the upper harmonic registers. Doreen’s answering voice sounded far, far away. As if she were in another dimension.
“Yeah . . . Sure. I’ll call them in a minute. But we need to talk first.”
Damn! What now? More money? A new judge saying my last child support check hadn’t cleared the bank and be sure to send ten percent penalties? More whining about how everything cost too much and the doctors wanted their money upfront?
“Tom . . . ,” she paused, her uncertain tone more like that of the woman I’d known during fifteen years of marriage, not the stranger she’d become after our divorce. “I’m worried. Things . . . aren’t right out here. The newspapers don’t say anything about it. But my sister Jane--remember, she works as a programmer at the Defense Intelligence Agency?--Jane says the Army is planning something. Maybe martial law in the Virginia–Maryland area.”
Her voice ran down, gasping for breath, sounding scared. Maybe she had reason to be scared, scared of more than just the Change.
“Doreen . . . stuff is screwy all over the country. But everything’s still running. The trains. The trucks.” Thank god for the eighteen-wheelers and their loads of food and fuel trucked coast to coast! “Radio. Most TV. Anything that doesn’t depend on satellites. Maybe it’s just someone jiving about some civil defense backup plan?”
“You idiot!” The scream rose higher than the static on the line. “You fucker! Do you think I’d call and ask for your help if this was just TV news bullshit?”
I swallowed, mouth suddenly dry. She sounded on edge. Worry for the welfare of three young kids stuck with an overwrought mother brought control to my voice. “You’re right. I’m an idiot. What help do you want?”
A pause intervened.
It stretched on and on as the microwave signal that carried our voices over the mountains, plains and lakes of a continent flittered back and forth at the speed of an electron with a bee in its bonnet. Had the line failed?
“I--I want you to come out here. To get me and the kids. I think it’ll be safer in the West. Fewer people. Fewer crazy people.”
She was right about that. In the East, the courts had gone crazy, declaring the civil rights of criminals more important than those of the victims. And private handgun possession east of the Mississippi had been outlawed. Meanwhile, the druglords now controlled large sections of most towns. Uzis ruled the night and money bought influence. I’d pleaded long and hard over the last few years for her and the kids to come out West, to the wooded mountains and clean seacoasts of Oregon. Maybe even stay at the guest house on Mary’s and my land until she could get a job. Now, she had agreed. Why?
“Fine. But why should I come out there? You’ve got money from your Dad--buy some plane tickets and fly out to Portland. I’ll drive up and meet you.”
“Haven’t you been watching the news?” Doreen’s voice fairly simmered with disgust. With the arrogant, I’m-better-than-the-world attitude that had finally driven me away from her, the attitude that Life owed her something. Owed her everything she wanted. That anything that went wrong was someone else’s fault--not hers.
“No,” I said truthfully; it had been two weeks since we’d turned on the flatscreen.
“A week ago the President issued an executive order declaring all airline seating subject to government use and control during the Emergency.” She laughed, hollowly. “I couldn’t get one seat, let alone four, out of Dulles if I had two hundred thousand neo-dollars. Even the black market tickets have dried up.”
“Oh.” Damn. I remembered something in the local paper about that. Something about airline service being ‘vitally essential’ to continued national security and food transport. “What about the trains?”
“Amtrak is booked solid for six months,” she said tightly. “And no one’s scalping their tickets. Even Jack can’t get seats through his old Pentagon contacts.”
Doreen’s father Jack had once worked for a Pentagon War Materials Preparedness committee of top corporate execs. He had a few contacts. But now, he was only a low-level businessman, making just enough to pay his protection “dues” to the NeoMob and the police.
“Too bad.” I leaned back in my chair to stare at the wall, my gaze gliding unfocused over pictures of Asian art and far star systems, in touch not with my cozy little writer’s study but with a different world. The world of power, money, politics, hysteria, poverty and craziness called the East Coast. “Your car was working last time I heard. Why not drive out?”
“Somebody stole it last night,” she said, the tone of shock and fear in her voice a thing that made me sit upright. “The Army has commandeered all rental cars. No one’s selling their extra car even if I had the money. My relatives are using their old cars for spare parts to keep a few running. And all cruise ships are at dock or running Navy cargos to either coast.” The phone line squealed and chittered as her voice faded badly on the last word. “Tom--I need your help. We need it. Billy, Cathy and Stevie need it. Come get us.”
Memories stole into my mind’s eye.
Memories of a once-whole family. A family that loved each other even though we had our problems and arguments. A family that had been broken apart by Doreen some five years ago. Like phantom ghosts, memories rose up . . . Of fifteen year-old Billy, still hurt by the divorce, sandy-haired, into skateboards and heavy metal rock music, who eeked out average grades. Of thirteen year-old, blond-haired Cathy, who talked about becoming a vet when she grew up--or maybe a teacher. And of ten year-old Stevie the chess player, who still laughed with me, still acted like I tucked him into bed each night. Suddenly, an image shook me. An image of Billy decapitated, Cathy raped and slashed and Stevie running drugs for a corner pusher. The image bled real blood. The image screamed real screams. The image made my nightmares and worries of the last few months suddenly real. Too real. I shivered, heart beating too fast, the adrenaline flush one gets from immediate danger a sudden surprise.
“I’ll come. For the kids’ sake. Mary will come too. I can’t drive cross-country without a relief driver. Any problems?”
“No,” Doreen said, voice turning hard again. “Just get here. Things are breaking down fast and I’m not sure how long the roads will stay open.”
“Open?” What the hell was she talking about? Was she overstating things just to get my attention, like before? “The interstates are still working. The earthquake damage in the Ozarks has been repaired, last I heard. Any new quakes?”
“Plenty.” Sarcasm filled her voice as she hid from the fear we each knew. “All up and down the East Coast. Along with rising seas, dead whales and porpoises, and red tide. Also ships that disappear in front of your eyes. But that’s not what I meant.”
“What did you mean?”
“I mean,” Doreen said in a voice as tough as the public housing she now lived in, a place full of low-income blacks, Asians and whites unable to afford half-million neo-dollar crackerbox houses, “that Jane also heard the FBI is setting up a passport requirement for interstate travel. Seems the crush of ‘citizens’ fleeing the cities in cars is hampering military convoys.”
The sarcasm in her voice entertained me now that I wasn’t its focus. “Bull-shit. That’s against the federal constitution. Even Russia did away with internal passports in ’92, after the Soviet collapse.”
Doreen laughed sharply, a laugh so on edge I realized there really was a crisis impending. “They restored them two weeks ago. Krikov explained it as something required by the new international tension.”
“What tension?” I really should have watched TV over the last few weeks, but writing is such an absorbing, all-encompassing job that it’s easy to forget about current events. Especially when Mary and I had to get in our sword-fighting practice time and attend Society for Creative Anachronism meetings.
“The missiles. You heard about them, didn’t you?”
Missiles? I recalled vaguely some Air Force Space Command general on a late-night CNN show who worried about a faster-than-normal rate of tritium breakdown in the warheads. He’d said something about one-fifth of the ICBM warheads being out-of-commission and the number climbing. Sounded good at the time.
“You mean the ICBMs? They’ve got plenty left.”
“Surrrre they do,” Doreen said sourly. “They just won’t fly like they should!” The phone line squealed as if six cats were getting it on atop a barbed wire fence. “Jane told me Earth’s local gravity field is fluctuating and the warhead computers can’t compensate. Tom, our missiles are all grounded.”
Holy Shit! Now I understood my neighbor Phil’s concern over the local National Guard armory going on alert. We had to have some nuclear weapons that could reach their targets. Otherwise, everyone and their uncle would start tossing conventional weapons. And we and Imperial Russia would be caught short while local Osamas burned our butts. There were still plenty of tactical nukes scattered around, available for sale to the highest bidder. And the republics left over from the old Soviet empire still needed hard currency and gold.
“So it’s crazy overseas,” I temporized, angry at the way she made me fear for my kids. “The U.S. is big. The ozone holes burned out only a third of the Midwest grain crop this year. We can make it on our own.”
Doreen began crying.
“Doreen. Don’t! Please don’t cry.”
My ex-wife she is. A hard bitch sometimes. But still, she’s the mother of my children. Children we’d both delivered, holding hands at the hospital. I still cared about her--some. And I should have gone out and gotten the kids six months ago when things first began turning strange. But Doreen wouldn’t have cooperated then.
Doreen gasped, sniffled, and came back on the line as it went to a steady series of weeps and whoofs that suggested a Beatles band practice. “Tom, come get us. There’s no one else. The neighborhood’s a war zone. The police aren’t answering calls. It’s crazy out here and getting worse.”
“I will!” There, I’d made the promise. “Stock up on food. Store water. Get yourself a gun. And keep the kids home from school.”
“Duh! I’ve done that already.” Doreen can never resist the chance to act superior. “How soon can you be here?”
I looked out my window at the Fall landscape, wondering when Winter would finally arrive. “A week, if the roads are clear and the weather holds. Three weeks is more likely.”
She cursed like a sailor. “What if I bribe a taxi? Maybe we can meet in Knoxville?”
Knoxville, Tennessee. Smoky Mountains country. Where Doreen and I had gone to college and gotten married--after I’d returned from the Vietnam War. Nice country. Beautiful hills. Rough people, sometimes. “No! Stay where you are. If we both hit the road we’ll miss each other. And you’ll be a body dumped by the roadside once past the city limits.”
“I know karate!” She paused. “But I’ll wait. Want to talk to the kids?”
“Yes.” The phone line now howled with a banshee wail as I waited for my youngsters to come on the line. The door to the study opened and in walked Mary, dressed in the green leather jerkin vest and wool pants she always wears for sword practice. Six feet tall, curvaceous and beautiful in a straightforward way, Mary held a two-horned Viking helmet in the crook of one arm. With her free hand, she brushed back curly blond hair, her turquoise eyes glinting with challenge and a hint of impishness. My wife seemed the very image of a wood sprite, but one with the build of a Valkyrie. She lifted an eyebrow, questioning my phone call.
“Doreen’s calling.” She winced sympathetically. “Wants me to come out and get her and the kids and bring ‘em back here.” Mary frowned slightly, her sympathy dimming a bit. “Hang on--let me talk to the kids, then I’ll explain. Okay?”
“Certainly, Thomas.” Mary’s contralto voice filled me with softness and passion and the memory of all the ways we take care of each other. “Shall I get your practice suit?”
“No.” I heard the phone being picked up at the other end. “Wait here.” She settled into an armchair.
“Daddd?” called a hearty young voice. Billy.
“Hi, big guy. Still playing football?”
“Nope.” He sounded like a young boy trying to be too grown up. “That’s for rich jerks. Anyway, Mom’s keeping us home for special study. I have to watch the garden, too.”
The garden--Doreen’s sensible way of supplementing erratic supermarket supplies. On the roof of their townhouse complex, food stayed on the vine only so long as someone watched. Preferably with a rapid-fire weapon. Maybe Billy had learned to use that bow and arrow set I’d given him last Christmas.
“Sounds good. Tell me how things are going.”
Billy talked. And talked. I heard the senior high details, the date with a girl who lived nearby in the complex, the growing interest in girls and in measuring his strength against a hard world. My first-born son talked of life on the East Coast and I remembered him. Remembered his first squall after coming from Doreen’s womb, wet and slippery and red with smeared blood, yowling lustily, then squirming vigorously as he spent a few hours in an oxygen tent to help his lungs clear out natal fluid. My cheeks felt wet.
“So, Dad, have you sold another book yet?”
“Huh?” I left the warmth of memories. “Nope. The publisher wants me to do the next one on speculation. Says the cash flow is low. I’m thinking about it.”
“Does he pay script or gold?”
Smart kid. “Script neo-dollars. But I get two hundred copies I can barter sell for hard coin money. Better than nothing.”
“Good luck.” Billy paused, the phone line burped, and his voice came again. “Cathy’s here. She wants to say hi. Mom says keep it short--she’s afraid the phone line will go before everyone gets to talk.”
“Sure. Put her on.”
A soft, tinkling voice tugged at my heartstrings. Cathy. Tall, overly serious and with a young woman’s figure, she was auburn-haired like her mom. And also a damned good soccer player.
“Yes, precious. How are you?”
“Great! Mrs. Abakian gave me this guinea pig. One she didn’t want to keep for food. I’m raising it and reading all ‘bout them online.”
“That’s neat! How are your ballet lessons going?”
Silence. Had the line quit? “Uh--I had to quit a week ago. Mom says it’s . . . too far to walk for the lessons. She said I should stay home with the boys.”
Too far? Just a half-mile down a main suburban street. Only a little ways past her junior high school. Things must really be bad. “That’s all right, precious. Practice in your room and on the roof. Dance under the stars. You’re a good dancer.”
Her laugh carried a loving smile from three thousand miles away. “Thanks, Dad. Want to talk to Stevie?”
“Sure. And precious--I love you.”
“I love you too, Daddy. Here’s Stevie.”
The phone line wailed with a crinkly arpeggio, then settled down to a bass violin yowl. “Hi Pops!”
Stevie’s bright voice sounded unconcerned by changing tides, international tensions, and rumors of martial law. I smiled. “Hi, Mr. Kasparov the Second. Beaten your teacher yet?”
“Mr. Neuman? Yep! Three nights ago when he and Mrs. Neuman came by to visit and have potluck with us.”
Potluck? Potluck meals usually meant something at the Catholic church that Doreen and the kids attended. Not at home. Not unless the trucks weren’t getting through.
“Great! What else you been doing?”
Stevie told me. At great length. He was into his fourth story about his fifth grade teacher when his voice faded badly. I looked over at Mary, still sitting patiently in a nearby chair, but with her helmet now on--slightly askew. She watched me, her pale face full of sympathy as I connected, all too briefly, with my children.
“I can’t hear him.”
“Call again.” Mary is the calm and collected one among us. “Maybe the connection is still there.”
I tapped out a series of dial tones. No answer. The phone line twittered, cheeped, squealed and howled. I started to hang up.
“--and my frog jumped into her lap and--”
“Stevie! The phone is dying. Put your Mom back on, please.”
“Sure, Dad. I love you.” I told him I loved him too and waited for Doreen.
“Tom?” She came on the line, her raspy voice sounding very tinny, very far away. “I don’t think this connection is going to last much longer.”
“Agreed. Doreen, I’ll call you again once we’re on the road. We’ll leave tomorrow morning. Hang in there.”
A sniffle. A sneeze. She sounded like she had been crying. “I will. We will. Tom, Jack says--”
The phone line died. I shook it. Nothing. Slowly I put down the phone, then looked at Mary. “Lover, you up for a trip across the country?”
Mary turned inward, alone with her thoughts. Her face assumed a solemn beauty under a crescent arc of yellow curls, hair pressed down by the iron cone of her Viking-style helmet. It’s a handmade bonnet she’d hammered out herself at a Society for Creative Anachronism forge at the county fairgrounds. For a lawyer handling personal injury lawsuits, Mary sure loved to play the Medieval fantasist role, pretending to be back in Shakespeare’s era when times were simpler and the steel cut sharper than a shrew’s tongue.
“Thomas, your ex-wife is a whiney bitch.” She blinked solemnly. “Why do you want her out here?”
“I don’t. I just want my kids.” Their framed school pictures drew my eye to the low shelf behind my Mac. I shook it off, turning back to caring but tough Mary. “Doreen is part of the package--regrettably. Can you hack it?”
“Why now? What’s the matter out there?”
Briefly I explained how the East Coast was falling into a sea of chaos and why transport was closed down. “Can you take vacation?”
Mary nodded, still thoughtful as she considered the situation. “So there’s no other way than us going out to her?”
“None that I trust will leave my kids alive, unmolested, and in one piece.”
Mary winced, as if she regretted her deliberate, lawyerly consideration of all the options. “Do you think she’s lying? Blowing things out of proportion? She’s done it before, you know.”
The problem was, she had a point. Doreen was a whiney bitch who used everyone to her own ends. But my kids are special. They’re the best thing I’ve ever done in my life, the offset to what I’d done in ‘Nam, the golden dream that eased my flashback nightmares. Guilt stole over me with the stealth of a slow-acting poison, invading me, seeping out of every pore, reminding me that, somehow, someway, it was my fault they were in danger. Being a parent can be hell sometimes.
“She might be--a little. But I believe the public news stuff. It’s crazy in the cities. And her sister does work for the DIA.” I paused, trying to adopt Mary’s careful, thoughtful manner. “I think my kids will be dead—soon--if I don’t go get them.”
Mary sighed, rubbed her eyes, then peered owlishly at me and dodged the issue one more time. “Did I tell you that my ward-talisman works? Drove off a property tax appraiser yesterday.” Her grin turned wolfish as she needled me about the efficacy of earth magic. “Wonder why? Maybe that old Warm Springs Tribe shaman who mentored me was onto something when he spoke of a Gathering of the Spirits.” When I didn’t react, she sighed with frustration. “Thomas, you’ve never questioned me about why I follow Earth magic rites. Why not?”
“Your business,” I said, feeling the press of time and the threat to my kids. “Anyway, it’s all coincidence or natural phenomenae--just like UFOs. If it can’t be replicated in a laboratory--”
“It isn’t real.” Mary turned grumpy. “Thomas, there is more than one way to look at life and reality.”
This was not the time to piss on Mary’s Wicca hobby. “True. Will you come with me?”
For a moment she pretended great thought, cupping her chin in her palm as her elbow teetered on the armrest. She inspected my ceiling as if searching for invisible tea leaf patterns, but saw only paint and spackle. She sighed melodramatically, finally replying as she noticed my worried earnestness.
“Thomas! Of course I will. Where you go, my love, I go. Even to crazy cities. Anyway,” she looked aside at my weaponry wall, eyeing my two-handed Crusader broadsword that hung next to the AK-47 rapid-fire assault rifle I’d bought two years ago, “I’m hankering to see whether your sword will really slice through a four-inch poplar. At the very least we can use it to cut firewood when we camp out. And it’s your turn to cook tonight.”
“I can’t cook. I’ve got to pack things for the trip.”
Mary pulled her helmet off and laid it in her lap, her expression a bit woebegone. “I guess this means we skip our afternoon sword practice?”
“Well . . . .”
She looked disappointed, so disappointed that I felt new guilt at the unfairness of her suffering for my parental needs.
But why were things changing? Why was normalcy slipping away so very, very quickly? It was a question I’d worked hard to ignore these last six months. Mary hadn’t. She’d practiced her Wiccan beliefs and complimentary Earth magic even more seriously, disappearing into the woods on strange errands. Was this the last day of what we had, what had become so special and wonderful to me, to both of us?
“No! We’ll do that practice.” I stood up, moving forward to pull a startled Mary into my arms. “And I won’t cook tonight. Not unless you can disarm me in fair practice. You may beat me with saber work, but old Hack-and-Slash over there will make diced mincemeat out of your Lady Evangeline.”
Mary stood on tiptoes, kissed me full on the lips, then nearly broke my ribs with a tight bear-hug. “Bullshit. Come out and prove it.” Letting go and turning back toward the open study door, she reached around its frame and pulled inside her own sword. Lady Evangeline is a light-weight, carborundum-edged saber midways in appearance between a skinny épée and a two-handed broadsword. Her right wrist flexed, making Evangeline flash through its paces just under my nose. “And put on your practice suit. I don’t like husbands who bleed all over dinner while they’re cooking it.”
I smiled, then followed her out into the hallway. She continued out the front door while I opened the hall closet, looking for my own leather jacket, leather pants, bronze shin greaves, and T-slit Trojan helmet.
So, our standard bet was the prize this evening? Whoever was disarmed had to cook dinner. Lately, I’d cooked three out of five dinners. Partly because Mary hates to cook and I like to. Mostly because she’s too fast for my buff male muscles. And very specifically because of that fucking little corkscrew disarmé wrist flick she’d learned from her French épée teacher seven years ago! I grunted, trying to think up an effective countermove.
Dressed finally in decidedly functional Greco-Roman clothing, I followed Mary out the front door. Nearby, up in the close-packed oaks that fringed our gravel driveway, cobalt blue Stellar’s Jays chook-chooked among the oaks and a few ponderosa pines. Black-on-white juncos fluttered overhead, a gray squirrel ran for home, and a warm breeze drifted up from the valley bottom. Just uphill, in the middle of the grassy field of our volleyball court, Mary moved fluidly through practice jumps and parries, her straw-yellow hair glinting in the golden sun of a late Fall afternoon. Mary’s fierce concentration allowed no notice of me.
She was so beautiful and so devoted. Why did she still love me? I plagued her with flashback nightmares, my combat time thirty-five years ago a geas that still weighed me down. And when Doreen moved the kids east to Virginia and I moved to Oregon to be with Mary, I had cried night after night for six months, mourning the loss of my children. Wonderful Mary had wept with me. Lying in bed together, she had comforted me, had made the loss a little more bearable.
Her gift burned bright inside--until I became haunted by our likely future. My children slaughtered or enslaved. My wife and I marooned somewhere on the prairies. Our home burned down by religious fanatics. Our life no longer what it was.
Except for this afternoon. One last practice as if nothing had changed. When she stopped parrying and looked at me with a inviting pixie grin, I smiled back.
We were a lawyer and an archaeologist. A romantic and a rationalist. A believer in Earth magic and a strictly kosher scientist type.
Caught in a Time of Changes, a time of fear and a time of mystery, we would soon set out across a landscape undulating with earthquakes, filled with strange polychrome hazes, and inhabited by hard-eyed men and soldiers armed with weapons far more powerful than my old AK-47.
It was a crazy promise I’d made. But . . . .
Maybe destiny was not the stuff of nightmares. Maybe there was no karma except what we each made for ourselves, out of love, or sacrifice, or . . . out of belief?
Whatever this journey brought us, I hoped Mary and I could keep what we loved in each other, some part of the essentials, some part of what made life worth living.
Then I recalled what a friend at Lawrence Livermore lab had told me.
He said that at the subatomic level, the distribution of random events was no longer a bell curve, but varied according to the observer who measured it.
He called the times “Heisenberg’s Uncertain Hell.”
My fear grew stronger.
copyright T. Jackson King 2012