A man rallies his neighbors to pool their resources in order to survive a mysterious power and communications blackout that follows a presidential declaration of a state of national emergency.
In the two weeks that follow it becomes apparent that the social clock has been turned back not a hundred years but a thousand as the citizens of tiny Rowley find themselves pitted against their neighboring communities in a battle for what slender resources remain.
Tuesday June 13, 6:01 PM
"Time for dinner kids" I call from the kitchen. My two young children, Kevin and Annie were watching Arthur on PBS which has given way to the news hour. I can hear them both jumping on the couch as I turn the corner from the kitchen.
"No jumping on the furniture!" I bark, struggling to keep a straight face as the kids are really enjoying themselves, giggling the way small children will when they’re being naughty.
I don’t generally watch the evening new but the lead story about the ‘huge dip’ in the stock market holds my attention for a few moments. I shut the TV off and usher my little urchins to the dinner table.
I don’t own much stock so I could care less but my wife, Julie, would moan about how much her IRA lost, a beating that came fairly regularly as the Stock Market performed it’s usual imitation of a roller coaster ride.
I decide not to bring it up unless she does.
Dinner is the usual combination of finicky palates and short tempers, ending in half-eaten meals and more than a couple of tantrums. Julie carries Annie upstairs to begin the evening bedtime ritual.
I am busy clearing the dinner dishes when I hear a loud ‘ka-boom’ that sounds like a cannon going off behind the house. I can’t see much from the kitchen window as our house backs up to the tree line and the lush late spring vegetation blocks my view of my neighbor’s yard.
The thunderous boom of the magnum handgun is repeated twice more as I hustle out onto the deck for a better look. I am just in time to see my neighbor turn the chrome-plated weapon on himself.
The marshy ground created by the small brook that separates our properties acts like a natural moat, I have never met the man who seems currently undecided whether to put the powerful handgun to his temple or in his mouth.
He goes back and forth between these two options twice before settling on his temple as I watch, stunned. Before I can shout he pulls the trigger and slumps to the ground.
I turn to find Julie only a half a step behind me. The shocked expression on her face tells me she’s been standing there long enough to see for herself what happened.
The wail of approaching sirens makes dialing 911 unnecessary.
"Oh my God!" Julie whispers in disbelief. I take my wife in my arms and she collapses against me, trembling. I hold her until she gathers herself enough to return inside.
We enter the living room together to find our young son Kevin playing with his Power Ranger figures by the window that looks out towards my neighbors house.
It takes us a moment to notice the usual grunts and groans of Karate have been replaced by my son’s imitation of the magnum as he jerks the action figure’s heads to one side after they blow their brains out.
I step over to the window and can see my neighbor’s corpse lying in plain view a dozen yards away. My young son had the best seat in the house and had clearly seen it all.
I gather my little guy up in my arms and carry him upstairs to bed. This is part of the usual routine. Mommy put Annie to bed and I tended to my son.
"Kevin, did you see what that man did in the backyard?" Little ones are eager to please. My four-year old son searches my face for a clue to what answer to give.
"Yes Dad." He replies uncertainly. What do you say to a four-year old that has just witnessed a suicide? I weigh my response carefully.
"That man did a bad thing. You and I will talk about it later but for right now, that man did a very bad thing."
"Okay Dad." My young son replies and he lets it go. I change Kevin into his PJ’s and read him the requisite three bedtime stories. I tuck him in and kiss him good night without either of us mentioning our neighbor’s final public appearance.
Julie is in the Living Room putting the kid’s toys in order when I come back downstairs. Our eyes meet and the phone rings a heartbeat later, saved by the bell! Julie answers and I see from the caller ID that it’s her twin sister, she’ll be on the phone for a while.
I need to gas up the car and pick up some soda. I snatch up my keys and head for the door. I drive to the end of my street and find that every emergency vehicle in town has responded to my neighbor’s suicide, blocking the easy route to the store.
Luckily the scenic route was wide open. It’s a little longer but it brings you right to the Cumberland Farms which is also the closest gas station.
The setting sun paints the landscape crimson and gold as I cruise slowly towards my destination. I’d not driven very far when I notice several homes are beehives of activity. The home’s occupants we hustling to load RV’s and SUV’s with camping gear. I wouldn’t have thought much of this if it had been a Friday evening and only one or two households were packing up but what I was witnessing looked like a mass evacuation!
The antenna for my car radio had snapped off a year ago. If I was close to the city I could pick up most stations but out here even the strongest stations would only come in if the wind was right and there weren’t too many trees. I had taken to listening to my small collection of CD’s for onboard entertainment.
So when I pulled into Cumby’s parking lot and found it deserted, I popped the CD I was listening to out and let the radio take over…nada.
I hit the scan button and was surprised to find a clear signal almost right away. This didn’t surprise me nearly as much as what the station was broadcasting.
"…this is not a test, The President has declared a state of national emergency. All non-emergency personnel are ordered to stay in their homes and wait for official instructions, anyone caught traveling that is not on official business will be arrested! This is not a test. The president has declared a state…"
Route 1 was jammed with cars, most of them heading north, so much for following or even waiting for ‘official instructions’. I needed gas, soda and a few other items now that it was apparent I’d be house bound for the foreseeable future.
I dropped the Chrysler into gear and joined the northward flow. The local super market was less than two miles from here. There is also a gas station on the way, if I were lucky, it would still be open.
We creep up to the lights and the gas station is dark but the Agawam Diner across the street is still doing a brisk business. I peer ahead and see a local police cruiser blocking the entrance to the supermarket…and make a hard right turn that will take me to the center of town.
This is the court of last resort. There’s another combination gas station, convenience store in the center of town. I hastily pop my Rush CD back into the deck. I would be difficult to feign ignorance with the canned ‘state of emergency’ message still blaring over my stereo speakers.
It takes all of my self-control to keep from speeding to my destination. As I drive along I witness the same frantic activity that I’d observed earlier but now I notice that many of the would-be refugees either have side arms strapped to their hip or are toting either shotguns or hunting rifles.
I round the last bend to see that the lights are still on at the Richdale. A spot opens up at the pump as I pull in and I resolve to fill it instead of just putting a few bucks worth in.
Everything goes smoothly. I load up on soda, milk, bread and even grab a pack of Bic lighters. I haul my purchases over to the register and that’s when I see the tiny sign…the one that says ‘cash only’.
I’ve only got ten bucks in my pocket. Gas alone had run nearly thirty bucks. It’s time for a quick decision. There is only one other patron in the store and an elderly woman behind the register. I decide it’s not my fault they can’t take my credit card. I’d be damned if I was going to sit there while she rounds somebody up to siphon twenty bucks worth of gas from my car…so I bolted!
The old lady curses and screams as I run out the door. The other patron, who had cash in hand, walks out right behind me.
I’m pretty sure the police have their hands full at the moment and wouldn’t be looking for me, not tonight anyway. I speed out of the Richdale parking lot in the direction of Ipswich to throw the old bat off then turn back onto Route 133 and headed for home at a more reasonable speed.
Julie was still on the phone when I returned with my ill-gotten gains. I loaded the milk and soda into the refrigerator and joined her in the livingroom. Her eyes were red and dewy and I wondered if this was due to her reliving the ordeal of our neighbor’s suicide or if there was a new reason to cry, given the circumstances.
Julie ends her call and looks at me expectantly.
"Why didn’t you tell me you were going out?"
"You were on the phone." I lied. The real reason I escape without telling her is her repeated failure to cross the gypsy’s palm when I run errands for her.
"Have you seen the news?" I ask, changing the subject.
"No," she replies I’ve been on the phone since you left." I switch on the TV and PBS is broadcasting a test signal. I hunt down the remote and flip to a main channel and it’s a three-ring circus!
A text message scrolls along the bottom of the screen that pretty much echoes the message I’d heard on the radio. The talking heads were throwing out all kinds of speculation as to what had caused the president to declare a state of emergency and the reason they were guessing, they said, was because nobody could get through to the capitol to ask what was going on as communications were out.
It seems the networks were still able to get in touch with some of their affiliates as reports were coming in from across the nation, grim reports of fires, blackouts and riots between police and angry mobs, upset over the mysterious declaration.
Many of the cities shown were burning and most reporters were making their observations from secluded areas on the outskirts of the conflict.
If this wasn’t enough, they switched back to the studio where a grim faced commentator told the nation that the stock market had essentially gone flat line in a crash that was much worse than the crash of ’29.
I’d seen enough. Julie eyes glued to the TV, snatches up the phone and dials her sister.
"Greg, the phone’s not working!" She says, exasperated. I take the phone from her hand and play with the hook switch…nothing.
"Must have lost service." I tell her as I head downstairs to round up my empty soda bottles. I didn’t know if my tiny town had a backup power generator and I wasn’t about to wait and see if we still had water pressure in the morning to find out if they didn’t.
"900 well-armed men, that's very impressive but suppose we don't want your protection?"
The Ambassador of Ipswich dropped his crocodile grin and asked, "Are you prepared to fight off 900 well-armed men?