Jericho Town Hall had never been so full. Not when the tornado had touched down between here and Rogue River, not when the floods had come from Bass Lake, not even when half the crops had failed and the town had wondered how it would feed its own, let alone anyone else. This time, the place was packed, and it felt a little like that last of meeting places T.S. Eliot had written about.
Johnston Green, feeling a bit more like his old self again, had a hell of a situation on his hands. In all his days as mayor, he had never expected to preside over the death of…well, it was time to tell these people, if they didn’t already know.
“Folks,” he began. “As you know, my son Jake reported in when he got back to town and told us about the message he heard from the radio station in Nebraska. Mr. Hawkins managed to get one of those hand-cranked radios going, and heard the same message, not only on that station, but on a couple of others as well -- one in Topeka, the other one in Omaha, we think. The message is repeating, and it appears to be real.” He took a pause before saying the inevitable.
“There is no more United States. The government has shut down.”
Jake and Heather sat quietly among the crowd, listening to the reaction, everything from hubbub to shock to stifled sobs. If there was any doubt among the townspeople that the two of them were a couple, it was dispelled by the way Heather held Jake’s hand. Nor was it lost on Emily, a few rows away among the sea of folding chairs. She suddenly felt very alone in the crowd. Why these feelings for Jake all of a sudden?, she asked herself. She’d had them buried for a dozen years.
“Now, you’re probably wondering what this means,” said Johnston, trying not to say what he was thinking: the end of everything. “It means we are on our own. We still don’t know where the governor is, and we have no communications with Topeka except for those intermittent radio broadcasts, so the state government is not functioning, yet. That means the responsibility falls to local government. In this town, that means me, the town council, and the remaining law enforcement authorities.”
Jake knew that mostly meant Bill and Jimmy, and his father. Hardly the fighting force to fend off the likes of Jonah Prowse and his gang, not to mention the mercenaries from Ravenwood.
“I want to make it clear that law and order will be enforced in Jericho,” Johnston went on. “The laws presently on the books will stay on the books, but we don’t have a judge or a court for ninety miles in any direction. We don’t even have a magistrate. So, I am appointing the town council members to hear court cases.” His voice hardened. “If you break the law, badly, you are in danger of summary judgment. That means that if you’re caught stealing, killing, raping, or committing any other serious crime, and there are reliable witnesses to your actions, you run the risk of a death sentence. Death by hanging.”
There was a gasp from some in the crowd, followed by a stony silence. Heather held Jake’s hand a little tighter.
“I realize that sounds terribly harsh,” said Johnston, “but you saw and heard what happened over in Rogue River when law and order broke down. That’s not going to happen here. We’re going to actively pursue wrongdoers -- and we’re going to try to take care of each other.“ He happened to look over at Dale Turner and Skylar Stevens. They were holding hands, too. Son of a bitch, he thought, is everybody in this damn town pairing off?
“What about money?” piped up a voice from the audience.
“Worthless, probably,” drawled Johnston. “No United States government to give its ‘full faith and credit’ to that. Now, they said the government was suspended, not disbanded, so we might hold out just a little hope for the future. But for now, you might as well use your dollar bills as toilet paper.”
“Gold, silver, coins, what about those?”
“Well, might be worth something, if you can get them to a dealer who can sell them overseas.” He paused to consider it. “No economy, the way we knew it. No transportation, that’s going to be a problem. You can’t eat gold or silver, and we’ve already got shortages in this town.” The conversation was going in the wrong direction. Johnston decided to turn it around.
“What’s going to be valuable now is what people need. Food, water, the other necessities of life. Land is valuable, too, if you know how to use it. You’re going to have to barter with what you have, or can do, or can make yourself. Most of you are going to have to learn new skills -- and just about all of you are going to have to learn how to grow your own food.”
The level of talk in the already noisy room rose. This was an unsettling thing, and Johnston was as unsettled as they were. “Folks, this isn’t the end of the world. Maybe we can regroup, maybe the country can come back. Kansas is still here, Fillmore County is still here, although we don’t know everything that is going on. But for now, we’ve got to find some way to survive, without any outside help, without any resources but our own. We have to be self-sufficient, and we have to keep our heads on straight.”
“I’d arm yourselves, if I were you,” he warned the room. “There’s already been trouble with those Ravenwood people. If you‘re in danger, shoot to wound, not to kill -- unless you have to -- and then call for us. Protect yourself, your property, your loved ones. But don’t take justice into your own hands.”
He caught a glance of Mimi -- the woman from the IRS -- who was sitting with Stanley Richmond, but distinctly not holding hands. That brought a hint of a smile to his face, and gave him his closer. “About the only good news I have for you is that, come next April fifteenth, I don’t think any of you is going to have to worry about paying your damned taxes.”
Mimi gave him a look that could have withered Jericho‘s fall corn crop.
Johnston grinned. His little bomb had fallen on target.
* * * * * * * * * *
It was a sunny afternoon that day in Jericho. To look at the world, one wouldn’t know that all was not as it had been, that there was lingering radioactivity in the air, craters where Philadelphia and Chicago and Washington, D.C. and so many other cities had been, fifty million people or so dead and gone, along with the modern life that had belonged to them for so many decades. Even a month later, it was hard for many townspeople to believe and accept.
Jake and Heather left Town Hall hand in hand. They had hardly let go of each other since the time they’d heard the sobering statement on her car radio. In fact, they’d barely been apart at all.
She looked up at him. It was the same look he had seen in the car, but the fear had faded, replaced by concern, inquisitiveness, sincerity.
“So, Jake…what do we do now?”
“I’m not sure, Heather. I think one of the first things we have to do is plant a garden. Getting to the ranch is going be trouble, without transportation. We need something closer to home, with potatoes and some other vegetables that are rugged enough to survive. We can get the seeds from Stanley. If we can just grow enough food to meet our own needs…” With six people in the house, he thought, that’s going to have to be one hell of a garden.
“I should start working on some mechanical things,” she said. “This town goes back to before the Great Depression, there has to be something we can salvage. Anything foot-powered or hand-cranked will still work. Old sewing machines. Meat grinders. Victrolas! I bet I could fix those,” she offered brightly.
“Do you know what you’re going to get if you fix a Victrola?” he laughed. “Old 78 RPM records with scratchy songs that your great-grandparents listened to. If you can find any.”
“I know. I miss…hearing music,” she said, disheartened.
The town had indeed been awfully quiet that way. Jake saw her need. He thought of the catchiest song he could, and for one of the few times in his life, tried to sing -- with decidedly mixed results.
“There she was, just a-walkin’ down the street, singing…”
“Do wah diddy, diddy dum, diddy do,” she eagerly joined in.
“She looked good,” Jake sang at her.
“Looked good,” Heather came back.
“She looked fine,” Jake kept going.
“Looked fine,” Heather sang, with a huge smile on her face.
“Looked good, looked fine, and I nearly lost my mind,” sang Jake, Heather joining him on the last line, and he thought that all of it was true with respect to her. The song was older than both of them, and he didn’t get to the chorus about falling in love, but he knew that was true, too.
They smiled at each other. Jake had eased her pain a little.
He leaned down and gently but passionately kissed her. I really don’t care if the townspeople are watching, he thought. She happily returned his kiss, but when she opened her eyes, she saw just a fraction of a glance from Emily, who quickly looked away and walked off in the other direction. Heather thought she looked sad, envious.
Jake was preoccupied. She squeezed his hand.
“Hey,” she said, “we’re going to be okay.”
She’d said it to him once before, that day on the school bus, when he had driven the patients from the medical clinic to the fallout shelter. She had been right, that day. Jake earnestly hoped that she was right again.
* * * * * * * * * *
In the middle of the night, Jake heard a sound coming from upstairs. He couldn’t make out the words, but he knew the voice. It was Heather, and she was in trouble.
He padded up the stairs, quickly but softly to avoid waking the rest of his family, and stood beside her room, the room that had been his. Heather was clearly upset about something. “No,” he heard her say, then a more anguished “No!”, and finally what sounded like the start of a scream.
Was someone else in the room with her? Jake barged into the room, ready for action if necessary, and scanned the darkness as best he could. He thought of the Ravenwood gang, who knew his address now, thanks to Eric‘s carelessness. They wouldn’t be above raping a woman -- or worse. But there was no sign of anyone.
Heather was distraught, moaning. Jake sat down on the bed beside her. Nightmares, he thought. He caressed her softly on the shoulder, not wanting to frighten her, but hoping to give her an escape route from whatever was troubling her dreams. “Heather,” he whispered.
She awakened, reacting to his voice, not saying a word at first, just looking right into his eyes and heading straight into his arms.
“Jake. Oh my God, Jake. Hold me for a minute.”
He did, tightly. There was no cotton nightclothes between them this time; she was wearing a sheer nightgown that allowed all of her assets to be felt almost unhindered by Jake. He took her all in. She was warmer than usual, flustered, breathing heavily, pressing her face against his chest. He held her for a long time, until she was ready to tell him whatever had happened..
“I was in Denver, Jake. When the bombs went off.”
That’s an understandable nightmare, Jake thought..
“It was like when I was in the library -- fires everywhere, only a thousand times worse. Buildings falling down, people running, trying to escape, but there was nowhere to run. Me, too. I couldn’t run, and I couldn’t help anyone.”
Jake knew that not being able to help would have been one of Heather’s biggest fears. He thought of the piece of video they had all seen over and over again in the bar, the clips of people running for their lives. Heather hadn’t wanted to watch it. Perhaps viewing an endless loop of bad news wasn’t such a good idea.
“About the time you got here, it was all going to come crashing down on me,” she said, holding him a little tighter.
“Well, I’m glad I was able to come to your rescue,” he smiled. He hung on to her for a minute, the two of them clinging to each other in the pale blue moonlight.
She looked up and smiled back at him, her strength and confidence starting to return.
“I’ll be all right,” she said..
“Do you want me to stay?”
Heather didn’t have to think about that. “Yes.”
Jake took her into his arms again and they laid down on the bed. She held him close, and he gently stroked her hair. We always seem to end up in this situation, he mused to himself, thinking that one of these days, he’d have to do something more about it than just lay next to her….pleasant though that was.
He didn’t think of himself as a hero -- there was plenty wrong in his past for a lifetime of regrets, if he chose to dwell on it -- and the past five years had merely taught him to do what needed to be done. But he always seemed to be coming to her rescue, first on the school bus, then in the salt mine, now here in his house -- no, their house, and…
Wait a minute.
“Heather,” Jake asked, “did you say something about being in the library?”
“Yes,” she remembered with a sigh. “It was awful. Between the fire and the smoke, I couldn’t see where I was going.”
Jake’s heart stopped.
“You were in the fire? How -- why did you -- “
“Ashlee had run in there. One of my students. I had to go find her. Eric came in after us. Didn’t you know?”
He didn’t. Jake couldn’t believe Eric hadn’t told him. That bastard brother of his. If he didn’t know how much Heather meant to him, he was the last person in town who didn’t.
She saw the puzzlement on his face. “We were all trapped. Eric kept us safe until the fire was put out. If the sprinklers hadn’t come on when they did…” The thought made her shiver.
Jake retracted his earlier thought. Eric wasn’t such a bastard.
“Heather, I was there. Stanley and I got the water pressure back on again. I had no idea you were in the building. We just did what we had to do to save the library.”
“Then…you saved my life,” Heather quietly realized.. “And Ashlee’s. Your brother’s, too.”
“You saved my father’s life,” he said, remembering how she had broken his fever.
She kissed him, in gratitude. Jake was still dumbstruck. He shook his head.
“You’re something, “ he said, imagining her running into the burning library to rescue one of the children in her care -- as indeed she had -- without a thought for her own safety.
What a woman.
“You could have been killed in there. Don’t you ever think of yourself?”
Heather gently traced a line on his chest with her finger. “Only when it comes to you, Jake,” she said, tenderly. “I want you all to myself.” She looked up at him. “You might want to talk to Emily. I saw her looking at us today, outside Town Hall. She seemed upset.“
“I don’t have anything to say to her,” Jake mumbled, thinking of the day before at Emily’s house.
“Jake,” Heather insisted, “she’s so alone right now. She cares about you. And she’s my friend. I don’t want her to be hurt.”
“I know, but I already tried to comfort her. She wouldn’t take it. Besides, there’s nothing between me and Emily,” he replied. “That was a long time ago.”
“Maybe she’s not so sure of that,“ Heather told him gently.
“I am,” said Jake, looking into her eyes.
She looked thoughtful for a moment.
“You know, Jake, I don’t think I want to sleep alone any more.”
He kissed her fervently, she rose to his embrace, and at least for the moment Emily was forgotten, and they lost themselves in each other, innocently, for a very long while.
* * * * * * * * * *
The next day, Heather handily took up gardening. Taking Jake’s suggestion seriously, and looking and dressing like the farm girl she had never been, she had driven up to ask Stanley and Bonnie for advice (and seeds), stopped at the library and 4-H office for the proper books, and gotten to work that very same morning, in the Green backyard.. Heather was, as her teachers in school had always said, a self-starter.
“Potatoes, soybeans, canola, oats,” she smiled, lining up the seeds in rows.
Jake didn’t find any of that particularly appetizing, except for the potatoes.
“Canola? What the hell is that?”
“For cooking oil. We’ll need it.“ She brushed the dirt from her gloves. “It’s too late in the season to plant wheat or corn, and there’s not enough room here, anyway. That’ll have to wait until next year.”
“You’re presuming there’s going to be a next year, “ Jake replied.
Heather stopped. She looked at him.
“There will,” she said, softly, firmly.
Gail Green watched as Heather began to work the soil with the tools that were available to her. “That’s quite a young woman you’ve got there,” she smiled at her son.
Pioneer woman, he thought. Little House on the Prairie, after the apocalypse. He decided that he would join her later, but first he had something to tend to besides the garden.
Jake took a few moments to tune around with the hand-cranked radio. Robert Hawkins had given it to the mayor for whatever use it might be put to. Civil defense, Jake thought, except there was no such thing any more. They’d be damn lucky if a leftover FEMA truck pulled up with whatever was left of its supplies, and he didn’t expect even that to happen. The government was gone, and his father had brought the radio home, where they could spend more time searching for signals.
He found the Nebraska station again, broadcasting the same message he and Heather had heard in the car. Jake wondered if there was anyone at the station, or if the message was automated, being sent out from a building -- a town -- full of dead people, day after day, for hours without end.. He had no way of knowing.
The message had been repeated so many times it was burned into his brain. It droned on. “All of our government and military personnel in other countries are being recalled…”
Let’s see you get them back here, Jake thought. Maybe you can use canoes.
“All active members of the United States Armed Forces, the Navy and its associated branches…”
Jake heard those last words as if for the first time.
The Navy, and its associated branches.
My God. He hadn’t thought of that. Until now.
“…ordered to report to their local district commanders, or to their state and local authorities, and to take orders from them directly...”
Jake’s mind whirled around like Dorothy’s house in “The Wizard of Oz.” San Diego, he thought. But there was no more San Diego. The five years he had spent away from home suddenly stretched out before him like a long scroll, like a debt that had just come due, as indeed it had.
He watched Heather, the girl he had chosen -- she had chosen him, really, from the beginning -- as she selflessly toiled in the backyard, trying to make their future more certain.
How in the world was he going to tell her?
* * * * * * * * * *
He had to do it, and quickly. In the evening, he took Heather aside, saying they needed to talk -- not the wisest thing to say to a woman right after dinner. She looked at him, quizzically, as they sat on the couch.
“Heather,” he started, holding her hands. “There are a lot of things you don’t know about me.”
Emily had said the same thing. She gave him a confused look, not sure what to expect from this. Was he going to try to break up with her? She tried to put away that thought, replacing it with the certain knowledge that it would take a lot more than a few bad things in his past to push her away. She loved him, no matter what.
“I was away for a long time. Five years. A lot can happen to a guy in five years. You don’t know where I’ve been…all the things I‘ve done.”
“I don’t care where you’ve been,” she argued. “You haven’t been in jail, have you? You haven’t killed anyone?”
Jake didn’t want to address her last comment.
“You’re here, now,” she said, a bit more softly, at least in part to reassure herself. “Jericho needs you. Your family needs you.” A pause. “I need you.”
“Heather…” Jake swallowed hard. “The instructions we heard on the radio, to the military, to the various branches. They apply to me.”
She looked at him. Dear God, please. No.
“I have to report. I have to report for duty.”
A frightened look arose in her eyes. “Jake…”
“I’m not even sure who I’m supposed to report to,” he continued. “I was in San Diego. The city’s gone. There’s no communications. I don’t know who the next-in-line to my commander is. But essentially, I’m supposed to put myself at the disposal of the government…”
“There is no government,” she protested.
Even now, Jake couldn’t quite believe it.
He checked himself. “Well, whoever, whatever is still functioning, I have to make myself available to them for…“
“For what?” Heather interrupted. “To go out there, into the middle of who knows what, to defend the ruins of whatever is still….” She trailed off, her tears welling up.
“Heather,” Jake said softly, “Damn it, I took an oath.”
Damn your oath, thought Heather. She had lost her home, her family, everything she had, except for her stubborn father. For once she felt terribly selfish. She wasn’t going to lose Jake as well. Not now. Not after all they’d been through.
She placed her hands on his arms, and her next words were full of tears and anger.
“Jake, don’t do this.”.
“You don’t have to go. There’s no more country. You don’t have an obligation to a place that no longer exists.”
Jake pulled her away from him and looked her in the eyes. “That’s like saying that my dad should forget about being mayor because there’s no more county seat, or because he can’t contact Topeka to get instructions.” He reacted as the man he’d been for the five years before he’d returned to Jericho; Heather thought she barely recognized him. There was a hardness to his eyes. “If there’s anything left out there, if there’s ever going to be a United States again, then I have to do what I gave my solemn word to do.”
“Then take me with you,” Heather asked, trying another road. “I’m not afraid of what’s out there, and I don’t mind being a war wife, or whatever they call it these days.” She stopped herself, startled, and placed her hand over her mouth, self-consciously; she‘d used the word wife.
The moment wasn’t lost on Jake, but he kept going..
“Heather, I’m not going to put you at risk -- ”
“You put me at risk every time you leave,” she cried, thinking of how scared she had been when he was heading for Rogue River, and how she had thrown caution to the wind, and herself into his arms, and kissed him -- the kiss that had changed everything.
Jake knew she was right. But he’d made up his mind.
“Heather,” he said gently, “I have to do this.”
She just looked at him, still crying.
“I’m going to talk to my Dad in the morning. He‘s the only real government authority we have left in this town. He’ll have some idea of what the hell I‘m supposed to do next.”
She nodded, not hearing anything he’d said.
Jake took her face in his hands and kissed her. She kissed him back, a bit reluctantly, but wanting the gentle reassurance of his lips on hers.
“Forgive me,” he said quietly.
She seemed to him to be better, but she was merely numb, and Jake didn’t perceive it. He got up from the couch and left the room, not seeing her head fall, or hearing her tears again after he had gone.
Of all the times she’d felt she was losing him, she thought this one was the worst.
* * * * * * * * * *
The night was a little chilly, not only in Jericho, but also in the Green house. Heather had said a soft good night to Jake, but nothing more. She hadn’t kissed him, she hadn’t invited him upstairs -- they typically talked before bedtime, and sometimes well past it -- she‘d crept up the stairs, quietly, and closed the door to her room.
I don’t blame her, Jake thought.
He thought of the two promises he had made -- one to his country, a country that no longer existed, as she had so rightly told him -- and the other, to himself, to protect Heather and keep her safe from harm. Now, he felt like he’d done her harm himself.
Jake desperately wanted to repair the breach, if he could. He headed up the stairs and knocked on her door.
“Heather?” he asked, softly, tentatively.
“Come in,” came the languid response from the other side of the door.
A single candle lit the room, dimly. Heather was in bed, looking sleepy. Jake sat down on one side of the bed.
She looked at him, a look full of sadness, pain, and longing, and just a touch of betrayal.
“I don’t suppose you want to talk to me,” he said.
Heather looked down. Jake reached out and took her hand, and for the first time it seemed like she didn’t want it.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow,” he said gently. “I could be going away, if that’s what they want me to do. Whatever it is, I don’t want to leave things -- leave you, leave us -- like this.”
It was breaking her heart. She turned away. Jake thought she was going to cry.
“Damn it, Heather,” he said, not quite as unkindly as it sounded. “There are times when a man’s got to do what he’s got to do. You know all the trouble we’ve had with the survivalists and the refugees and the people from Ravenwood. Somebody’s got to stop them.” His voice rose a little.
“Never mind if there’s no more government, or no United States, or even if the rest of the world is gone. You, me, this“ -- he clutched her hand, for emphasis -- “this is the only thing that matters. That’s what I have to defend. That’s the only thing worth fighting for.”
He thought he would indeed put a ring on that hand, someday.
For the first time since he had walked in the room, Heather heard his words. She placed her hand over his. Her eyes were suddenly tender.
“Come back in one piece,” she said, full of emotion.
It moved him, just as it had the last time she’d said it.. He went to kiss her, and she threw her arms around his neck, holding him tightly, then gave him a kiss several times more passionate than the one that was on his mind.
They held each other for a very long time. Jake pondered, and then he knew.
The only thing that’s going to save us from the apocalypse, he thought, is love.
Labels: jericho fan fiction