The sun was just starting to peek through the windows when Steve Johnson opened his eyes. As he rolled onto his side, the Army surplus cot where he had been dozing creaked. Steve’s wife, Rhona, opened her eyes and glared at him.
Creaking cots were on the long list of things that set Rhona off these days. Other items on the “glare list” included snoring, belching, farting, laughing, making a gurgling sound while drinking, chewing too loudly and pretty much any other noise, smell or action that Rhona didn’t consider appropriate.
Steve sighed and closed his eyes again. He, Rhona and their three teenage girls had been living at the FEMA shelter since November of last year. With each passing day, the gymnasium of the high school where the shelter was located seemed smaller and more claustrophobic. The leers of the U.N. troops guarding the facility seemed lewder and more indecent. Everyone’s nerves, especially Rhona’s it seemed, were raw and frayed.
Sleep was their escape. Rhona tried to sleep as close to twenty-four hours a day as possible. She left her cot for meals and to use the porta-potties, but little else drew her from her cocoon. Anything that disrupted her sleep set her teeth on edge.
As Rhona glared at her husband, she thought, “What I wouldn’t give for a handful of Ambien ….”
It was possible to find Ambien on the shelter’s black market. Of course, you needed something of value to trade. The Johnsons had nothing of value to trade. The family had narrowly escaped from their home back in November. One of the girls had spotted a band of looters making their way down the Johnsons’ street. The raiders were shooting anyone who resisted them. Occasionally, the looters would encounter a well-armed, well-protected home. If they took too much fire from a particular home, the gang would simply move on to the next house down the street. Steve had no way to defend himself or his wife and daughters. He had grown up in a family of hunters and shooters, but Rhona had forbidden guns in their house. So, they ran for it with little more than the clothes on their backs.
Things had been tough long before the Johnsons left their home. Steve and Rhona had done nothing to prepare for the crash. Although several of Steve’s Air Force co-workers had pointed out the signs of the coming collapse, Steve had been unable to convince his wife to divert any of their income toward preparations.
As grocery store shelves emptied and utilities shut down, the Johnsons began to panic. They had a typical stash of groceries on hand but little more. Every grocery store within five miles of their home had quickly become a battle zone as the economy spiraled downward. Prices increased. Selection decreased. Staples disappeared from the shelves as if they were a part of some giant magic trick.
The Johnson family resolved themselves to eating every crumb in the house. They ate their frozen and refrigerated foods first. When the electrical grid went down, the most of the food in their refrigerator began to spoil. They had no electricity to cook the frozen food so they ate most of it as it thawed or cooked it on their propane grill.
After the perishable foods were gone, the Johnsons began to ration their dry and canned goods. Hunger and thirst set in as a part of everyday life. The family limited their consumption of the food they had on hand to roughly 1000 calories a day and sipped sparingly at the bottled water that had been piled in the basement storeroom.
When the bottled water ran out, Steve retrieved water from the small creek behind their house in plastic ice cream buckets. The girls filtered it through cotton dish towels to remove the most of the sediment, leaves and other debris floating in the buckets and then boiled it in stainless steel pots on their grill. The water tasted terrible and, Steve reflected, probably still contained most of the run-off chemicals from fertilization of the nearby suburban lawns, but there seemed to be no alternatives.
Not long after the grocery stores shut down for good and the refrigerated food had been consumed, the Johnsons’ pets became a problem. Before the crash, the Johnsons had been animal lovers. They had two dogs, five cats, three birds and two Guinea pigs. In better times, the pets provided the family with enjoyment and entertainment. As both human food and pet food became harder and harder to find, the Johnsons faced their first life or death decision.
What to do with the pets? The pet food had run out. Human food was being doled out at less than half rations.
An argument ensued. Steve suggested that they release the pets and give them a chance to fend for themselves. Rhona insisted that the pets “were people too” and deserved a share of any food the family had. The three girls were torn. They realized that they didn’t have enough food for themselves, let alone their pets, but the thought of kicking the pets out of the house brought tears to their eyes.
In the end, Steve loaded all the pets into the family’s mini van in the middle of the night and dropped them off at a nearby animal shelter. In his heart, Steve knew that the shelter was unlikely to have the resources to feed their pets but the thought that the shelter might possibly be able to care for the animals assuaged a bit of his guilt. Little did he know that the shelter had been abandoned weeks before.
The pet issue was only the first in a long line of hard decisions that gradually drove a wedge between the members of the Johnson family. Their bellies were empty, their mouths were dry and their hearts were hollow when Susan, the oldest girl, spotted the looters making their way down the street.
Now, as Rhona listened to Steve snore, she considered her options. She needed sleeping pills … lots of them. With no material possessions to trade, Rhona had initially been able to trade the occasional sexual favor for two or three pills. Steve didn’t seem to notice and Rhona didn’t mind all that much – especially after the pills kicked in and she drifted off into the comforting blackness of chemically-induced slumber.
The black market, however, worked strictly on supply and demand. As people ran out of valuables to trade, sexual commerce became more common. As sexual commerce became more common, the drug dealers became much more discriminating. Rhona was never really an attractive woman. At nearly 50 and still 30-40 pounds overweight, even after four months of half-portions and low-calorie FEMA rations, the demand for Rhona was very limited, indeed.
Consequently, Rhona had been sleeping less and less of late. Her lack of sleep correlated directly with her angst and hatred. Rhona seethed every moment she was awake, like a pot nearly ready to boil over. She hated her husband. She hated the shelter. She hated the idiots who’d run the world’s economies into the ground. Rhona’s hatred crept through her soul like a cancer.
As she stared at the ceiling, her hatred nearing the boiling point, Rhona racked her brain. One of her daughters rose to visit the porta-potties. Her cot creaked and groaned as she rose. Rhona glared. Then it hit her like a ton of bricks. She did have something of value. Her daughters! All three of them were slender and attractive.
Rhona had grown to hate her beautiful daughters even before the crash. Rhona was short, and dumpy with mousey brown hair, muddy brown eyes, bad skin and bland features. All three girls were tall for their age, with long, almost white-blonde hair, beautiful blue eyes, smooth, lightly-tanned skin and pretty faces. The girls were athletic. Rhona hated to move from the sofa before the crash and now hated moving from her cot just as much.
Rhona loathed the girls’ beauty and athletic nature. She detested her daughters’ physical, mental and emotional differences from her own.
“It’s about time those three little snots earned their keep,” Rhona thought as her glare turned into a wicked grin.
Soon she would have more Ambien than she could swallow. That made Rhona laugh – a cackle that sounded like an angry hen. This time it was Steve who was glaring.