Sunday, February 7, 2010

Remnant, Chapter 24


Saturday evening,
November Eighteenth
5:40 p.m.

By the time we got home, dinner was simmering away in two big slow-cookers. Our wives had taken my idea about the house next door to heart, and had spent some of the afternoon looking it over in detail.   They’d decided that we’d have a big dinner to discuss it with all of us. Carl and I were enlisted to get the extra dining room table leaves, round up more chairs, and a couple more tablecloths. Karen’s grandmother’s sideboard, converted from an old Kitchen Queen, was decked out with plates, silverware, and a bunch of glasses.
Karen had given me the notes they’d made for the work on the former home of Nate and Ginny Woolsley. She knew that I liked to think things out before diving in whole-hog, and with my imminent military commitment, this would be less about my direct contributions, and more about supporting the project.   It seemed that we were about to get into the extended care business.
The home to the south of us had belonged to a retired couple who’d never returned from Western Washington after the Domino. We’d never heard if they’d died in the quake, the ash fall, or had evacuated somewhere ‘else.’ Other than some minor salvage work at their home, mostly involving very little stored food in the place, securing a damaged water line, and checking the power before we shut it off completely, we hadn’t really been in the house. I’d boarded up broken windows right after the quake, patched some holes, and that had been about it.
The home had been retrofitted before our neighbors bought it, for an elderly couple in their last years in the home. The kitchen was designed to be accessible to a wheelchair bound chef, bath facilities, ramps and handrails installed, and doors widened. With some repair work, the house could be reused and could serve as a better alternative for Grace to get around, without having to deal with stairs, traditional tubs, and narrow doorways. This home could also be big enough for another resident or two, as well as live in nursing staff, just on the main floor. A couple of basement bedrooms were options too, but of course weren’t accessible.
The biggest negative was the ‘rancher’ layout, and the lack of a fireplace in the middle of the home that might help heat the place with a woodstove. The all-electric home didn’t have a great option for a wood-fired furnace either. It could be done, but not all that easily. For these reasons, we had decided months ago just to keep the place ‘off the grid’ for home rehabs.

A few minutes before six, our dinner guests arrived, Libby carrying in both hands clutched before her, a canary-yellow paper that I immediately recognized by the official seal. Sarah, Ron and Kelly followed and then Alan’s clan behind.   The house went from relatively quiet to quite noisy in a flash.

“Good evening all! Come in!” I said, playing the welcoming host, and ushering everyone inside.

“Lib, I see you’ve heard from John,” I said, referring to the Northwest Command paper.

“They made it to California. Just got this from Elaine!” 

“Good to hear. Personal message, or just the facts?”

“Mostly the latter, unless you count the cryptic message he sent Sarah,” Libby said, looking out of the corner of her eye at her future daughter in law, with a little smile.

“Sarah? Care to elaborate?”

“Nope, not even a little, thanks,” she said as she gave me a hug. “Thanks for the invitation to dinner. It seems like it’s been ages.”

“It does at that. Apple and pear cider are there on the buffet.  Make yourself at home,” I said, finally taking their wet jackets and coats.

The guys, including Carl and young Mark, gravitated to the living room, where Carl had moved his video game console.  Rachel, Kelly and Marie headed upstairs to Kelly’s room, for a few minutes of goofing off before dinner.  

“Hon, here’s the apple-jack,” Karen said, putting an old-fashioned brown jug on the buffet.

“Thanks—Nice container there,” I said.

“Seemed appropriate. That stuff must be eighty-proof!” she said. The antique moonshine jugs must’ve been pre Second War. I picked up a half dozen of them at a garage sale when I was in high school. They’d decorated various cardboard boxes ever since. Only one was ever displayed as an ‘antique’ and that one was lost in the quake.

“Now, now,” I said. “Not a smidge over seventy.”

“Paulianos?” Alan asked.

“Yep.  Don managed to resurrect the family’s ancient still,” I said. “I snagged a small amount of scrap copper for Don in trade.”  I poured each of us a tall shot glass.  The copper included sheet, tubing, and some piping, left over from one of our gas producer units.

“Holding out on us, huh?” Alan said, taking an experimental sniff, then sip, of the concoction.  “Holy smokes!” he said after his sample.

“Not bad, huh.” I said. Ron tried a sip, and declined more.

“A little much for me,” he said. “As in, not for consumption around open flame.”

“True enough,” I said, taking a larger sip.

“Is Don going into commercial production with this?” Alan asked.

“Maybe next year, he said. Not a huge priority for him. He just wanted to see if the old recipes were still good. Joe said Don did a better job on the finish than he did, which is pretty high praise.”

“Rick, would you call the girls down? We’re about ready to dish up.”

“Done,” I said, and then took another sip, before summoning the giggling girls. Rachel was four years younger than her cousin, but was fitting right in with whatever inside joke was running.

“OK, you boys, have a seat,” Mary said, directing us to the far side of the dining room table, away from the kitchen.

“Yes, SarMajor sir!” I said, taking my place near, but not at the head of the table. I figured correctly that Karen would take that spot.  

After we had devoured most of the stew, all of the wheat dinner rolls, and some applesauce, the ladies outlined what ‘we’ needed to get done next door before Grace would be released from Valley General, this coming Wednesday.

“Whew. Is that all?” Alan asked with a little humor.

“Can you do it?” Karen asked her big brother.

He and Ron gave me a look, I nodded very slightly, and then he responded. “It’ll be a push. Rick, you been in there lately?”

“Not since the summer, no.”

“We’re going to be working some serious hours to get this done,” Ron said, looking over the notes. “And this is a busy week at the stores, Thanksgiving and all.”

“So let’s hire some bodies,” I said. “I’m not sure what kind of hours I’ll have this week anyway, and next week’s too late,” I said, without saying, ‘And I’m wearing a uniform then.’ 

“Can you get it habitable, even though it’s not all finished?” Karen asked us.  I noted that Sarah was taking in the discussion attentively, but hadn’t contributed much.

“Yeah, if you hold a loose definition of that word,” I said. “You made a good list, but I also know that in addition to that, we’ll need to go through the circuits one-by-one, like we did here; we’ll need to check the plumbing again; and the electric furnace. Problem is of course when the power goes down, that place freezes. We need a backup source of heat, and that’s where a fair hunk of work is, over and above the sheetrock, broken glass, and getting the place weather-tight again,” I said. “Ron, you have that list of skilled tradesmen available from the main store’s want-work list, right?”

“Yeah, it’s at the store.”

“Maybe we ought a run down there and get it. We can probably get some labor lined up tomorrow at church, if they attend.”

“Most do,” he said.

“You trust them?” I asked, knowing that some of the men and women on the list of ‘I’m for hire—I can do these things’ were really there to case houses for strong-arm break-ins or invasions.

“They aren’t on our lists unless we do. We’ve vetted them all.”

“OK. Let’s go that direction. Maybe we use the same forces for the houses near the hospital, just finish up next door and move on to the next project,” I said. “Now, knowing what you know about those other houses, how much money do you need?”

“Probably two-hundred cash. We can trade for quite a bit of what we’ll need. Cash is faster though, although it shows our hand,” Ron said.

“Yeah, it does,” I said. Anyone using a fair amount of cash, and two hundred dollars was certainly above that threshold, would invite unwanted attention from those who were cash-poor. Regardless of connections to law enforcement or military, if you had those kinds of resources, you became a target. You couldn’t watch your back all the time. Having several thousand dollars in precious metals was all well and good, if spending it didn’t get you or a family member kidnapped or killed.  “I wonder if we can maybe work something out with the hospital that might deflect that a little,” I thought out loud.

“What do you mean?” Mary asked. “I got the impression that they’re all but broke.”

“Maybe we buy the houses. We coordinate the refit. In exchange, the laborers who put them back together get some sort of break on medical care. I don’t know, something like that.”

“Might be worth talking about,” Alan said, thinking this through to himself.

“Sarah, you’ve been pretty quiet. What do you think?” I asked.

“I’m a newbie to all this.”

“Well, if you were a caregiver, which you’ve done over at the clinic and the hospital, put yourself in that place and comment.”

“Security,” she said without pause. “People figure out that you have a care facility and therefore you have meds. You have meds, and they’re not protected, you get robbed. Even the home-grown meds and the manuals for holistic medicines—they take everything.”

That put a new spin on things. The Woolsley’s house had a very low fence around the front yard, an open driveway, lots of hiding places around the home, and just looked like a soft target.  Alan and Ron both took notice and leaned forward attentively. Karen, Mary and Libby listened on.

“You also need a safe room, separate from the medicine storage area. People aren’t the targets. Drugs are. Separate the staff and patient safe room from the drug storage, and things are far safer for everyone.”

“Or go the ‘Harder Homes and Gardens’ route and secure the whole facility,” Ron said.

“Sure, but your residents then feel like, and they are, living in a prison,” Sarah said.   “It’s like the rooms over at Valley that face on the courtyard. The patients that are in those rooms just don’t do as well as those that have a view to the real outside, without a big honkin’ security fence.”

“Hmm,” Alan said. “We’ll look at the place. Rick, aren’t the bedrooms all on one end?”

“Yeah. Living and dining room in the middle, kitchen and family room in that order, moving away from the bedrooms.”

“Shouldn’t be too hard to separate functions then, and meet Sarah’s goals.”

“They’re just ideas,” Sarah said.

“Sure, they’re good ideas,” Alan said.

“Anyway, let’s get the first project off the boards and see what goes next.  It’ll be your baby soon enough,” I said to the collected adults. The kids had made themselves scarce as soon as the last empty spoon hit the last empty bowl.

“Don’t remind us,” Karen said. “Let’s get going on these dishes. Boys, it’s all yours. We ladies are going to put our feet up.”

“Fair enough. I just hope you can find your dishes when we’re done putting them away,” Alan said.

“Rick will…”

“Oh, no. Don’t bring me into this. It’s our house. It’s your kitchen.”

“Men,” Libby said. “Ladies, come join me for a cider over ice, with a little cinnamon.”

After a dessert of apple pie, we took turns playing Sequence, working as couples. For a change the Drummonds took a commanding lead, and ended up winning.  The woodstove cracked quietly as the ‘losers’ fought over last place. Sarah had headed back home with Ron and Alan escorting her, before they’d returned to fight over last place.  Buck heard something, stood up a fraction of a second before Ada joined him, growling at the door.

“Gents, we may have company,” I said, reaching for a shotgun.  Ron and Alan took up arms as well, as our wives collected Mark and Rachel, and moved upstairs until we could see what was coming our way.  For an opposing force to get this far, they’d have had to have come through the neighborhood guard. Doable, but messy.

The doorbell rang. Not the modus operandi of an attacker, unless tactics had changed dramatically. Buck and Ada both took a step back, and barked, fur on the back of their necks raised.

“Do me a favor, boys, and cover me here,” I said, cradling my modified 870, now sporting a handgrip and folding stock. This shotgun was loaded with double-ought, except for the last round, which was a law-enforcement slug round.

Ron had his own sidearm out and trained on the door, listening for anything amiss. Alan had one of our AK47’s. I moved past the door, unlocked the deadbolts, and found Elaine Cross on the other side. The dogs went into ‘sniff mode’ immediately, with buck grabbing an old toy and wagging his tail furiously.

“Major, this is a surprise. To what do we owe the honor?” I said, ushering her in as Ron and Alan quietly stowed their weapons. I safed the Remington and stowed it behind the door.

“I have a couple of things for you. For all of you, actually, but there are some briefing papers in here for you as well, Rick,” Elaine said as Karen, Mary, Libby and the little kids came back into the room, and resumed watching their movie. Such interruptions were not seen as irregular by the kids, and both Rachel and Marky were turning out to be pretty good shots with single-shot .22’s.

 “Hi, Elaine. Come in for some pie. Sorry for the armed reception,” Karen said.

“That’s OK. I understand.  You do have two squads on patrol in the area though. Not much is going to get by them.”

“Good to know, still….” I said.

“I know, better safe than sorry.”

“How’re the kids doing?” Karen asked.

“Jenny’s getting better. Now Bobby’s coming down with it.”

“Sarah got you that elderberry concoction, right?” Libby asked, serving a nice sized piece of pie to Elaine.

“Sure did. That stuff’s magic,” she said. “Aren’t you curious about that packet?”

“Yes, but I’m willing to wait,” I said.

“You shouldn’t. Seriously,” Elaine said with a wink.

“That does it. Give it here,” Karen said, tearing open the large manila envelope. The contents spilled onto the scarred dining room table.

Four cellular phones, identical in manufacture but in different colors spilled out, along with their charging units. They slid out along with a smaller envelope, about a half-inch thick, stamped with the logo of the Pacific Northwest Command.

“Oh, my,” Libby said first. “Are you serious?”

“Yes!” Elaine said. “You’re among the first to get them. They’re already activated. Look on the back for your names and your numbers.”

Everyone started talking at once at the prospect of being able to make a phone call again. I was wondering, who would I call?

The packet addressed to me, I opened after our guests had left for the evening. I’d asked Elaine if she knew anything about the contents, and she suggested that they were probably an outline of my command responsibilities.
They were all of that.  On their face, the documents illustrated a complete reorganization of the United States Army and the Guard.  Many of the historically centralized training locations had been eliminated by the Second Civil War, and the ability to ship a soldier from Washington to wherever for basic training, and then back to a unit, and then to the “front”, wherever that was, had been recognized as wasted motion and time and resources.   For young John Martin, this would have meant training closer to home. Unfortunately, it came a couple weeks too late. He would likely though join a Washington State infantry unit.
The three-page Command Summary document outlined my intermediate future. In a few days I’d be a brigade commander, a minimum of a thousand troops under my command on day one, up to three thousand when full strength, the Third Washington Engineering Brigade, or Third Washington Engineers, part of the Forty-First Division, Transportation Command.  Our brigade had an interesting assignment, being to support the front line troops with materiel, repairing rails and roads on the way to the War, mostly rails, alternating between rear-area support and repair of transport potentially under fire. We’d help out communities along the rail corridors as we could, to support our primary mission, that being to get men and machines East to meet the S.A. forces. We’d be rail-mounted from Spokane, and head east, fixing things along the way along with BNSF train crews, eventually pulling in behind the line in the snow that separated United States Army forces from those of the S.A. The War was bogging down to a winter slog, along ragged lines crossing Colorado, Nebraska and Minnesota, as well as across Kansas, Missouri, and through northern Kentucky, parts of West Virginia, slicing neatly along the North Carolina state line to the East Coast.  The Air Force had a role of course, but this was mostly a ground war.  With the war in Mexico and then the turmoil at home, there was a serious shortage of airborne munitions.  The historic stockpiles had been used up or abandoned and blown up overseas, leaving very little in North America to fight a modern air-superiority war.
Everything in the Northeast was S.A. territory, including of course the irradiated Washington D.C.  They held the Great Lakes, parts of Ontario, the St. Laurence Seaway. The State of America forces had been beaten back north from the Gulf of Mexico on up the Mississippi. They were blockaded by the Navy in the Gulf, along the East Coast, and along the Canadian Maritimes. They held Memphis, and roughly a third of Tennessee. Alex and Amber were there, last spring, with their young children, Luke and Jaime. It had been more than six months since I’d heard from them. Almost as long since I’d heard from my oldest brother and his family. Jack at last word had been north of the Twin Cities. Both of my surviving brothers and their families were behind the lines, if they were still alive.
I studied the next document, fifty-pages or so long, to see the depth of the changes.  The reorganization would be literally from the ground up, harkening back to units created during the First Civil War and before, from local areas, organized by the States, trained together as units and sent in service of the national war effort.   Each state would have their own ‘basic training’ post.  Ours would be at Fort Walla Walla, and would be in operation by the Monday following Thanksgiving. Oregon would have their post in Walla Walla as well, since they had no active military bases pre-War. Idaho would train at Mountain Home Joint Military Center. 

I was thinking to myself, what I needed was a copy of “How to Command an Army Brigade For Dummies.”

Karen snuck in behind me, as I was buried in further Army bureaucratese, giving me a bit of a start as she snaked her hands around my ribs.

“Bedtime, my love,” she said, nuzzling my ear. “It’s late, and, we’re alone.”

“I like the sound of that,” I said, finally noticing her quite transparent gown. “I like the sound of that a lot!”

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