Consequences - Chapters 1 - 3
By Susan Callaway
1. Tactical Errors
Charlie watched the flames reaching into the sky, just a block away. He was carefully shielded from casual observation from the street, high on his former balcony, but he didn't dare stay long. No point to it anyway.
Replacing the plywood on the old French Doors, he screwed it down for the last time. The room was empty, and dark since the other windows had been boarded over after the attack a week before. The bullet holes in the walls gave silent testimony to the senseless savagery of that night. He could still smell the blood and his jaw trembled as he struggled to cope with the anguish anew.
Cathy waited patiently in the basement with the two little boys. Evan, just 10, had wanted to go upstairs with his father, but 6 year old Donald clung with desperate fear to his mother and hid his face at any sound from outside.
"We can't stay here any longer," Charlie said softly. "We should have gone months ago, and I don't know how we can get out now. But if we don't at least try, we'll die here."
Cathy didn't respond. Her vacant stare suggesting that she had reached the limit of her coping ability, with no more tears to shed. She had even stopped looking out the remaining window to the back yard where her baby girl occupied a shallow grave. She wouldn't fight him, he knew, but she would be no real help either. She had not been willing to pick up her gun since the night of the attack that killed Jackie.
The terror had begun quickly after the trucks stopped coming into town with their loads of food and medicine. Charlie figured it was a combination of no gasoline and the increased danger over the preceeding week, when the looters and criminals remaining in the city had begun indiscriminate shooting of anyone or anything that moved on the streets. First it had been only at night, but the last two days the sporadic gunfire in the distance had gone on day and night. He had seen the bodies of a few neighbors, and one policeman up and down the block, and it made him sick to know he would not have dared attempt to help someone wounded if he had seen one.
Charlie had had watched his neighbors board up their homes and leave over the preceeding months, clinging desperately to the hope that something would happen to defuse the coming crisis. Once the shooting had started, he continued to hope that the situation would stabilize somehow, with the shooters either killing each other off, running out of places to loot and leaving, or being taken out by the authorities.
He and Cathy had enough supplies to keep them alive for a month or more, and so far the looters hadn't discovered their existence, keeping busy in other more prosperous areas. The bullet that had ended his tiny daughter's life had been a chance stray when a large group of young men had gone down the street shooting out the windows of all the houses they passed.
But now the looters were getting closer and beginning to set fire to the buildings. Time was running out. Charlie sat on the bed rolls and put his face into his hands. He hadn't planned for this - and he knew now with sickening certainty that he should have. He just didn't know what to do - or where to go if they did get out.
2. The Marines Have Landed
Charlie came up out of the bedroll instantly alert as the roar of a large engine tore apart the breaking dawn. His M1A was in his hand, and the sling was snug a second later. Suddenly, the roar was very close and a kaleidoscope of sounds included a heavy thumping on the basement door.
"This is it," he said to himself, "payback for all my screw-ups!"
Safety off, Charlie waited for the battering ram to break down the door, unwilling to fire first, knowing he couldn't win even if he did so. But he was spared that dilemma. A loud, throaty voice on the other side of the flimsy barrier said, "Charlie, get your butt in gear! The Marines have landed!"
Throwing off the lock and turning the knob, he came face to face with the last person he had ever expected to see again in this world - a bristle headed older man, the scourge of his stint in the USMC, Sergeant Bradshaw - his sister's new husband. Bradshaw and two other men in full combat gear poured through the door and immediately scooped up Cathy and the children. Wordlessly, Charlie grabbed his ammo packs and the "bug out bag" he'd so carefully packed a month ago, never even thinking to look back as he followed the men to the big, black Hum-Vee idling in the drive way.
An incoming round hit the armored side of the truck as the final door slammed shut and the big vehicle almost burned rubber getting out and down the tree shaded street.
Nobody said a word as they rapidly traversed the long streets, dodging the burned out cars and occasional corpses. By some miracle, only a few more shots connected with the armored vehicle, and none seemed aimed at the tires. The Sergeant rode "shotgun" beside the driver, and Cathy - still catatonic - sat between Charlie and the other man in the back seat. Evan soon crawled into his father's lap, and Donald had finally stopped whimpering by the time they reached the edge of town.
The last bit of road before the highway was blocked with a significant pile of junk cars, so the big Hum-Vee simply lumbered over the curb and retraced its own incoming tracks through two lawns and a shallow drainage ditch to the road beyond. Nobody was guarding the barrier, and they had not heard any gunfire since they had left the burning neighborhoods behind.
Two other vehicles, two armed men in each, waited on the highway. They pulled out rapidly to leave the "Hummer" in the rear guard position. Neither of the others had any sort of armor and were pocked with bullet holes.
The man on the other side of Cathy passed Charlie a big canteen, and another one to the Sergeant. Charlie poured some water into the cap and got Cathy to drink it, then did the same for the boys before he tipped the container and drank greedily. What a chump they must think he was, he thought, but he'd not realized how desperately hungry and thirsty he'd been until he put the canteen to his lips.
With a grin and a nod, the big man next to Cathy reached behind him and pulled out another canteen and quickly drank his fill as well, then handed around granola bars. Charlie relaxed, and prayed he could avoid any more screw-ups, even though these folks seemed very forgiving. He didn't want to push his luck.
Cathy groaned suddenly, and Charlie knew that meant she had to urinate. The message seemed to be clear to at least the Sergeant, and he spoke into a small radio. Soon the little convoy stopped next to a small wooded area.
"Don't go far, and don't get out of sight," Bradshaw said as Charlie half carried Cathy down the gentle bank to the grassy verge. He nodded as he helped her squat, noting that only the Sergeant had dismounted with him, watching the back road. The boys erupted from the vehicle just as Cathy stood again, and Charlie helped Donald with his zipper while keeping close watch on Evan as he watered a bush.
When they were all settled again in their seats and travel resumed, Sergeant Bradshaw gruffly introduced his companions as "Mutt and Jeff," with no further explanation. The driver "Mutt" chuckled and "Jeff" just smiled, so Charlie understood this was an inside joke. He knew there would be time for explanations and introductions when they were clear of the danger zone.
3. Bandits At Noon
"I knew you were going to be trouble from the moment I set eyes on you."
Charlie's head came up from a light sleep, just barely grasping the softly spoken words from the grizzled Sergeant. Silence had reigned for many miles after their quick pit stop, and the combination of motion and the warming day had made exhaustion finally claim him. Cathy was actually sound asleep beside him, and both boys were out like lights.
Bradford turned his head and grinned at the little family group, eyes full of compassion and sorrow at the same time. Charlie gave a weak grin back, but didn't know what to say. He knew he'd been a royal pain in the butt in boot camp, and probably even more so afterwards in Iraq.
"You had plenty of guts and a good head, but you were never going to relate well to authority. Too much thinking, son. I wish I had understood that at the time."
Charlie could still remember the sore muscles and weary days of marching, push-ups and extra duty dished out by the Sergeant after his frequent episodes of rebellion or unwise remarks. He grinned a little himself, remembering what a smart-ass he'd been so often.
"Yes Sir!, he said. I came home just happy to have stayed out of the brig."
The little convoy followed the old state highway, making a wide detour around any town where possible, but a squawk from the radio Bradshaw held announced trouble. The sun was just past high noon, and blazed in a cloudless sky all around them, but they could see a good sized town in the distance. The bridge had been out when they came through before, and there was not much of a way around the town without it.
"Stop here," the Sergeant said, and the convoy came to a halt in the middle of the road. "We ran into trouble here yesterday, and it wouldn't be smart just to barge in now."
A driveway nearby caught his eye, and he directed all of them to turn in there and park behind a row of trees. Without another word, two men in the lead vehicle jumped to the ground and began a careful reconnoiter up the hill, vanishing over the slight rise in a few minutes with rifles at the ready and the easy movements of long experience with such maneuvers.
The boys woke fussing to get out, but Charlie had them pee in one of the plastic water bottles they had emptied earlier. He worried about Cathy because she would hardly drink, and was showing signs of dehydration already. But this didn't seem to be the time do anything about it... even if he'd known what to do. The boys were enjoying the adventure with the bottle, and Charlie was busy keeping them from spilling the contents, so he was startled to hear a shout from beyond the hill, and then the sound of gunfire.
Immediately, he pushed the boys onto the floor of the HumVee and pulled Cathy's head and shoulders into his lap as both Mutt and Jeff leaped out. He couldn't move her over so he could get his head down too, so just leaned as far forward as possible. Bradshaw had jumped out his door, and all of the other men had taken cover as well as they could - watching in every direction while they waited for a report from the forward scouts.
Once again the radio squawked, and the Sergeant motioned for everyone to remount the vehicles. They drove on up the road and into a deserted farm yard behind a deep windbreak.
Well, not actually deserted. Two corpses were inside the small fenced area around the front door, and two obviously fresh ones lay in the open door of the house. The two in the yard appeared to be the farmer and his wife, while the others were clearly armed bandits. They had not been given any chance to shoot.
Bradshaw gathered everyone around for a little conference after the corpses had been decently hidden in the barn. Charlie helped Cathy into the house to use whatever facilities were available, and hoped they would have time for her to rest in a bed for a while. He washed her face and hands in some water he found in a big Arrowhead bottle, and then did his best to get her to drink as much as possible. No telling when they'd have another chance like this.
Mutt came into the kitchen and shook his head at the mess the marauders had made of it. Food was strewn all over the table and counter, with a burned mess in a pan on the stove. Like hyaenas, the bandits had destroyed more than they used. Cathy sat on the single chair that had not been broken. The boys stayed near her, but were obviously eager to get outside and explore.
"Go ahead and find a place to lay her down for a while," Mutt said. We're going to send some scouts into town and that will take a while. But keep the kids in here, at least for now. We need to make sure there are no more bandits in the area."
Charlie herded the boys in front of him as he helped Cathy into the living room and onto a couch. He thought she was moving a little better, and didn't need him to support her weight nearly as much - but maybe it was just because he'd finally gotten some liquid into her. Evan and Donald found some crayons and coloring books on a table in the corner and were finally persuaded to occupy themselves that way, after he promised that they could go outside as soon as it was safe.
Ducking back into the kitchen, Charlie got a long drink himself, and looked through the cupboards hoping to find something to feed the boys. A big box of crackers had fallen behind some canned goods, and it was half full. A can of corned beef hash and a jar of spreadable cheese was lurking in the far back corner of another cupboard, and the combination soon made a fair meal for them all. Charlie didn't figure anyone would miss the stuff, but he still felt bad about taking it and, self consciously, went about cleaning up at least some of the mess as a token of appreciation. The fact that nobody but him would ever be likely to care made no difference at all.
The sun slowly inched its way to the west as the little family dozed. The men outside kept careful watch from covert positions, the vehicles parked in an equipment shed on the edge of the windbreak. As it was, only a light breeze caught the leaves from time to time, and flies buzzed with ever increasing numbers in the barn. Charlie wondered what had happened to the animals, or if there had been any, but it didn't occupy his thoughts long because the sound of a vehicle on the driveway got his attention immediately.
Bradshaw was speaking into the radio as the old Jeep crested the little hill. Calling everyone into the yard, he briefed them on their plans.
"There is a fairly large bunch of bandits there, but most appear to be dead drunk. Must have broken into the brewery. A few of them are on the barriers at the edge of town, but they are drunk too. If we move fast we should be able to use some side streets and get through without too much difficulty."
The vehicles had all been refueled earlier from the supplies they carried, so it was a matter of a few minutes until all were in their places and ready to move out. The HumVee took the lead now, and they made good time as the day wore on.
This is fiction. Any resemblance to actual people or places is purely unintentional.
It is a work in progress and may change or be published later.