Heavy snow lazily drifts from the gray sky. I huddle close to the small fire I began under the heavy foliage surrounding the Aspen trees. My coffee pot percolates, while I peel of the wet clothing clinging to my body. It’s below freezing, I draw closer to the fire.
“It wasn’t always this way…” In the distance, I hear heavy machinery climbing toward my position. “Jesus, these guys are relentless…” I douse my fire, put on fresh clothes and listen to the darkness. Over the rumble of the diesel engines, I hear the clink of tank tracks. Without another thought, I grab my pack and slip back into the cold night.
Once upon a time, life was much different here in America. I was a successful soldier, until my career was shut down by an illness. Still, I was able to retire and then went to work as a teacher in a low income community. It was satisfying. Teaching history was rewarding. Ever so often, I would take my students to a museum or to a war monument and we would discuss the history behind the monument or some part of the museum.
“Those who forget history are bound to repeat it,” I would tell them. “Don’t forget where we’ve come from, or the mistakes we’ve made in the past. It doesn’t have to define us, but we must always look back to ensure we stay on the right track.”
“A lot of freaking good that did,” I thought bitterly. Climbing at night, with no lamp, is treacherous. I keep a low silhouette, as I head east toward a series of caverns. “Given my luck, they are waiting for me there.” Still, I push onward.
The wind howls and the snow blows into my face, slowing my progress. I stop and listen, all I hear is the roar of the wind. Ahead, I see the silhouette of aspen, and I make my way toward it. “We knew things were bad, but we never thought our government would turn on us. It was upon us before we ever knew what to expect.”
I went to work that fateful day, the same as any other day. When I got to work, troops were standing in my classroom.
“Are you Michael Finny,” the Lieutenant asked. I nod and step back. “Yeah, what do you need?” He smiles, and his smile reminds me of a shark that smells blood in the water.
“You need to come with us. We have some questions that require answers.” I smile at my students. “It’s okay. Everything is going to be fine.” Their eyes are the size of half dollars, sweat dots their brows. They nod and sit down in their seats. Lt. Salazar takes me by the elbow.
“We are meeting with the teachers in the gymnasium,” he said. I am led to the gymnasium, my fellow teachers are in a line, on their knees.
The PE teacher, Mr. Smith looks at me, his eyes flashing with inner fury. He is bleeding from his mouth. Sergeant Wilhelm stands behind him grinning.
“Hey Lieutenant, guess who got hit in the gums,” he chuckles sadistically. Salazar grins back.
“Get on your knees.” I smile and politely refuse.
“Thanks, but I don’t get on my knees for anyone,” I said. Salazar walks in front of me and points his sidearm at me. “I said to get on your knees,” he said calmly.
Again, I smile. “I don’t think so, Lieutenant. Do what you-”
The 9mm slams into my jaw, two of my teeth fall to the floor. The metallic taste of blood fills my mouth. Salazar motions to Sergeant Wilhelm.
“Come here, Wilhelm. Help this history teacher to his knees.” Both soldiers are staring at me. I watch as Wilhelm walks toward me, his hand reaching for the blade attached to his side plate.
As Wilhelm approaches, Mr. Smith attacks. Smith grapples with Wilhelm, and Salazar turns toward the ruckus. I grip my KA-Bar folder knife and thrust it under Salazar’s arm, piercing his heart.
Wilhelm shakes off Mr. Smith and fires a three round burst into his chest. Screams fill the gymnasium. Wilhelm turns to me, as I push the blade into his jugular. I twist the blade and extend the cut along his throat.
He slaps a hand over the wound to contain the blood flow, and I stab him twice in the heart. Both Salazar and Wilhelm collapse to the floor dead. The teachers have run for the door, and in the distance, I hear the sound of gunfire. I strip the bodies of Salazar and Wilhelm, and check both the M4 and sidearms. I load both. Then I head back to the classroom. Upon entering, I sweep the room looking for targets. My students huddle in the far corner. Their cheeks are wet with tears.
“Okay, guys. We’ve got to get out of here. You have a choice to make, you either go with me, or stay here. What’s it going to be?”
I watch as their bodies shake with fear, the thought of moving throughout the chaos roots them to the corner. They look at me in shock. Tim Bowers seems to be the leader of the students, so I take him by the elbow and walk him to the door.
“Tim, look at me.” He looks me in the eyes, his eyes dart frantically from me to the door.
“You lock this door and keep everyone quiet. Stay away from the windows. If you guys decide to leave; you leave as a group. Do you understand me?”
“Yes sir.” I pat him on the back and whisper, “good luck to you guys.”
I make my way out of the school, avoiding the patrols and sentries set about the building. I stay low in the ditches until I come upon the last bastion of civilization, a small Shell station on the outskirts of town. The sun has gone down, and night is fast approaching. I peek over the ditch, no vehicle or patrols are in sight. The M4 is my primary weapon, I pull it into my shoulder and slip through the early dusk. A television is playing inside. Old Man Williamson always keeps the TV on. He claims it makes criminals think people are inside the store. An anchor, widely known for her opinions, is going over the day’s events.
“Well, Jerry. The Blankenship/Worker campaign has said from the beginning, if they were given the opportunity to lead, they would make swift changes. This is just the beginning of the purge to clean up America.”
“Yes, but do you think targeting those who oppose you at the voting booth is a good idea? I mean, these people are our fellow citizens for God’s sake.”
I can’t believe what I am hearing. “We’re being run to ground because of our voting habits? Seriously?”
“Why not, Jerry. These people cause serious harm to our country by proving to be unwilling to change. Their inflexibility at the voting booth is proof of a greater issue.”
“So, you think it’s okay to murder our fellow citizens because they think different from us?”
“Oh, get off it Jerry. No one is dying. They’re being taken to a re-indoctrination center. No one is being hurt. Joe Blankenship said today, they’re only there until they’re ready to think like the rest of us.”
“What about the reports from the high school earlier-”
“If you can’t handle the slug, don’t be a thug, Jerry.”
I stand in the darkness, and fury builds in my heart. The white-hot rage fills my senses. Behind me, I hear the shuffle of tired feet. I whip around bringing the M4 to bear. Ole Man Williamson stands behind me, his hand covering a nasty wound in his chest.
I take him by the arm and lead him to his chair. He grunts with pain.
“Do you have something I can clean this wound with, sir.” He nods and motions to a pack in the corner. “Yeah, youngun. There in that pack.” I pull the pack to me, and shift through the ammo and oil until I find rubbing alcohol and bandages.
I pull his hand away from the wound, so I can see what I am working with. It’s a puncture wound. “Tell me what went down here, sir.” He nods, and scratches at his face.
“Three of them fellows caught me unaware in the back room. I got two of them, but the other caught me with a bayonet. I think he might have shut the door on my hurt locker. There’s no need to clean it, son. I’m not gonna make it.”
Tires crunch on the fresh snow outside of the Shell station. We listen intently as footsteps land in the snow. Loud voices crack the night air. Mr. Williamson touches my shoulder. “Go out the back, I’ll take care of these clowns. Take the pack with you, son. God knows you’ll need it before sanity returns to our country. You be safe out there.” I shake his hand and depart. The black backpack rides on my back, as I slip once more into the night. Out front, Mr. Williamson shuffles out into the snow. “Y’all done come back for more, eh?” The shock troops look at him in awe, as he throws dynamite at the gas pumps. The explosion knocks me off my feet and down into a ditch. My eardrums scream with pain, while the debris lands all around me.
I check myself for wounds as I lie in the snow. “Jesus, what a way to go out,” I mutter to myself. I look around me, and make sure I’m alone. No one is visible. The orange background from where the station once stood is the only change to the night.
Once more on the move, I head toward the tallest mountain in our region. “There are plenty of places to hide there. I just have to make it there.” In the background I hear the sound of dogs chasing my trail. “Jesus, I can’t catch a break. They must have found the bodies at the school. I hope my kids are okay.” I race to the river and leap in. My breath spews out, as the cold seeps into my bones. I swim down the river and after a few moments, I crawl out on the other side and head toward the mountains.
We have come full circle, you guys are now caught up.
The mountains loom larger, as I draw closer. Daybreak is minutes away according to the black, G-Shock watch on my left wrist. I stop short of the caverns and pull out a pair of Vortex binoculars. There is no movement around the entrance of the caves. “It doesn’t mean there aren’t people inside the caverns. Time to put on my war face.” In the cold dawn air, I silently approach what I hope is safety. I climb up to the cave opening and slip inside.
The interior of the caverns consist of crags and narrow passage ways. My pathway is dimly lit, water flows down the path making it imperative I place each foot solidly before I walk further on. Crags are cut into the rock face, I continue downward. Each step leads me further into the open maw of the cavern. The walls are mostly ice, my footing and grip is slippery at best.
I hear voices singing in the distance. It sounds like they are singing ‘Amazing Grace.’ In the darkness, I perch ready to pounce should a solider materialize below me. Light illuminates the bottom of the cave. I can see people sitting in a circle. One woman stands in the center and leads the group in singing. I watch.
“What are Christians doing in the cave,” I wonder. An elderly man steps next to the woman and it gets quiet. He begins speaking in a raspy voice, I lean back against the wall and listen.
“Things are tough right now. As we speak, our fellow citizens are being round up and shot for ‘crimes’ against the United States. Let us take a moment to pray for our Nation, and these families which are suffering at the hands of wicked doers.”
In the dark, I mumble a prayer. I notice all these folks look tired, and the realization that I’ve not eaten or drank anything today causes my stomach to rumble. “Quiet idiot.” My eyes grow heavy, and I drift off into peaceful slumber.
I dream of Tiffany, my one true love, and in my dream I wonder if she made it out of the school. I dream she was a prisoner, and after the soldiers had their fun with her, they shot her and toss her into a ditch with the rest of the bodies.
From a dead sleep, I leap to my feet and bang my head on the low ceiling of the cave. The circle of people watch in silence. I stare at them, trying to decide if I should prepare for battle or if making a dash for it would be a better choice. They don’t move, and I stay still. An old man approaches me, I recognize him from the makeshift service last night.
“Son, it’s okay. You’re among friends.” His stance is wobbly on the cavern floor, his bald head has a few sprigs of hair that are solid white. He holds his hands up to calm me.
“I am Elder Bishop. I was the pastor for HillTop Tabernacle. Who are you?” I stare at him, breathing the stagnant air deep into my lungs. Elder Bishop sticks his hand out in greeting, I stare at it.
“Where are my weapons?” He nods his head, his grey eyes shimmering in the dim cave. “Look in that pile there, son. Did you run into the soldiers also?”
I rub my hands, and look toward the fire. “Yes sir. They shot my friends at the high school.” The old man nods. “I’m sorry, son. We are from all different congregations, spread throughout the mountain region. We don’t know who made it to safety and who didn’t. You’re welcome to stay for as long as you want.”
I nod and sit next to a dirty, blonde boy by the fire. He carries an old Springfield rifle. After warming myself by the fire, I search for my missing gear. Sure enough, in the pile lay my M4 and two sidearms. I take the rifle and set the three point sling to fit snugly around my torso. Then I took the sidearms and break them down to clean them. The dirty boy from the fire came and sat next to me.
“Are you a hunter, sir?” I stare at this unwelcome intrusion. His face was earnest, and he spoke in a low whisper. “I haven’t been one for a long time. Why?” He thought about it for a minute and looks up at me. “Because, you seem to know your way around the woods. If the preacher ain’t sent no one out looking for trouble, we’d never seen you.” I scoff and continue cleaning.
“You don’t like Christian folk do you?” I stare at him, and he stares back. I shake my head and check the barrel of the 9mm.
“Where did you come up with that crap,” I asked. It was his turn to scoff. He spit on the floor and wipes at his nose. “Just the way you got up. We thought you was going to kill all of us. It’s a good thing you didn’t know where your weapons were.”
“First off, whatever your name is, I have severe PTSD. I always wake up like that. Second off, I happen to be a Christian, and most importantly, if I have an issue, I won’t hold it in. Clear?” He nods. “I just thought…”
“Yeah, you told me what you thought. Try being less judgmental.” The boy looks at the floor. After a moment of awkward silence, he looks at the wall. “My daddy was a soldier. He didn’t come home from Iraq.” His voice trails off, and I notice a lone tear trickle down his dirty cheeks. I sit beside him.
“Iraq was a tough place to be. Where was he at over there,” I asked. “I was in Baghdad, Basra, and a few other places.” He beams a smile in my direction, and puts a dirty hand on my shoulder. “I knew you were a soldier. My daddy was in the Green Zone. You ever been to the Green Zone?” I nod. “I’ve been through there,” I said. He stares at me in admiration, and I begin to feel uncomfortable.
A sentry comes by, and I ask when chow will be ready. After a short conversation, I walk over to the boy and tell him to go get in line for chow.
“I’m Johnny,” he said. I grip his dirty hand and force a smile. “Call me Finny.” With a smile on his face, Johnny walks down the tunnel to the chow line. “What am I doing? This is no time to become friends with total strangers.”
I sit on a rock, and lean back against the wall. All I love and care about is gone. America has fallen to it’s knees. There is nothing more to be proud of. Even as I sit on this rock, murder, mayhem and chaos roam the streets like some wild animal. The savages have taken over.
“Are you going to eat,” a small voice calls from the dimness of the cavern. A young woman, the same from last night, stands at the bottom of the pathway. She motions for me to come toward her. I wave her off.
“Thank you, but no. I have to be on the move. I wouldn’t want to lead them here to you.” She smiles and steps toward me.
“You’re Michael Finny aren’t you?” I nod. “Yes, I am. Who are you?” She stops a couple of steps from me. “I am Tim Bowers older sister, Beth. Tim has always held you in high regard.” I blush at the compliment given to me. “Tim is a great student and athlete.” She blushes too. “Yes, he is. Did you know that be was planning to be a soldier like you? He found inspiration in your example. I thought you should know that you made a difference in his life.”
I am at a loss of words. She touches my arm and smiles. “You were his hero.” I shake my head no. “Ma’am, I’m no hero. I’ve gone to war with some, but I don’t fit that description. I’m a monster. Please tell everyone they have nothing to fear from me ,and thank them for their hospitality, please.”
Beth smiles and nods. “I will tell them, they will hate that you left. I think you make them feel safe.” I cinch up my pack and slip out into the night. Under the moonlight, I make good time to the base of the mountain ridge. Behind me, I hear the clink of tanks and heavy trucks. I turn and look down toward the entrance of the caverns. A platoon size element dismounts and head toward the entrance. “God, please protect those folks.” I drop to my belly and pull out my binoculars. One by one, the Christians are brought out in single file. Then they are shot. The next group is brought out, and I see Beth and Johnny. Beth stands and crosses her hands. Johnny struggles with his captors. A Lieutenant pulls his sidearm and empties a magazine into Johnny’s face. Beth takes a punch to her face and is taken to a truck and thrown in like a bag of rice. Elder Bishop lifts his hands and worships the Lord for His goodness. I watch as a knife is driven into his heart. He collapses to his knees, a smile on his face, as he draws his last breath.
Tears run down my face as I watch those who took me in, bear the brunt of the violence of this new Administration. I put the binoculars back in their case, and turn and run to the hills.
“God help us. Where have we gone wrong? I can’t run forever. Where will I go, what will I do? At some point, I will have to either fight or flee…” There is no comfort in these thoughts. I am a lone person, who was in fighting shape years ago. These days, I am a middle-age softy, who is on the run for his life. My thoughts turn to Beth. Her kindness at the cave was overwhelming. “You’re a hero.” I scoff. “Heroes are from fairy tales, this is a freaking nightmare given human personification. Besides, all the heroes I know are dead.” As fear propels me further up the mountain, I realize I am only delaying the inevitable.
I have no food and my water is sparse. The only ammo I have is what I got back at the high school and a few magazines from Old Man Williamson. Gunfire will bring helicopters, drones, and soldiers. I am going to have to make a stand, or find others to join. The higher I go up the mountain, the more I exert. Thus, I am burning more calories and dehydrating quicker.
A small group of Aspen trees are ahead of me, and I wander toward them. The snow has let up, but my face is bitter cold, my lips are cracking open, and I need warmth something bad. I’ve been running for two days, and exhaustion is closing in on me quickly. I nestle between the trees and lean against a trunk. Sleep pulls the shades down over my eyes and I drift off to rest.
Hours or minutes later, I hear footsteps crunching through the snow. I crack an eyelid open and look around fearfully.
“Shh son, you’ve got to be quiet if we’re going to find dinner. Pick up your feet!” I watch as a dad and son stalk a ram below me. They’re using compound bows to hunt something to eat. A ram walks out in front of the son and he notches an arrow. After what seems like eternity, he let’s the arrow loose. It thuds home in the heart of the ram. His dad excitedly slaps him on the back. “Good job son, wait until we get back to camp and tell them what a great hunter you are.” They tie a rope around the hooves of the ram, and begin to pull it through the snow. I stand to my feet and watch the direction they head. Under a full moon, I follow them.
They cross over the ridge around daybreak, and I lose their trail . As I walk down the ridge, father and son step out of the sparse woods.
“Can I help you, mister,” the father asks. The son has an arrow aimed center mass of my chest. I nod. “I hope. My name is Michael Finny. I was a teacher in town, soldiers..” The father looks at me and nods his head. “You’ve got a weapon, and you’ve made it this far. I’m going to ask you to turn around and find somewhere else to call your own.” Exhaustion causes me to sit down in the snow. “Yes sir, I’m sorry to bother you. I just saw the people who were kind to me get blown away. I don’t want the same thing to happen to y’all.” Both gasp at my words. The father draws near to me. “Who were these people and where were they?” I point back toward the caverns and a lone tear trickles down my face. “The caverns west of here, at the base of the mountain. Elder Bishop, Beth and Johnny were kind to me.” The father puts his hand on my shoulder to keep me steady. “Is Beth, okay? She is my fiancee, did she survive the attack?” I try to stand and look the man in the eye. I nod. “Yeah, she made it through the attack. I don’t think her making it was a good thing though. These thugs have been unmerciful.” The son let’s the arrow dip from my chest, and the dad takes me under the arm. “Come with us. You need to tell the others this news.” We walk together until we come to hidden camp under a crumbling bridge not far from a public walking trail.
Once again, in a dark cavern, I make my way down a narrow shaft. The icy floor and walls make it impossible to move very quickly. We come to the bottom of the shaft and it spreads out into a wide room and multiple tunnels. I follow the father, whose name is Terry and his son, William into another open room. In a circle sits a group of people who are whispering back and forth. Terry motions to the group watching us approach. “This is the council. They brought us here when the government came after us. I guess we all chose the wrong candidate to vote for, eh?”
“I guess.” It is so far from being funny, but we break out into a small laugh. The council seems to not share our sense of humor. A graying woman motions at us. I stand and approach her.
“Who are you stranger? Why do you come to our camp without an invitation?”
“Um, Terry brought me here. I was with another group of people, west of here and the military found the camp. With the exception of Beth, everyone else died there.”
“Beth is my daughter, stranger. Choose your next words carefully. Why didn’t you intervene in this massacre?” I look at the council, my eyes wide at the accusation. Exhaustion causes my temper to rise, and I step close. “You believe I should have fought against overwhelming odds to try to save them? Where were you? Who are you to judge me?”
Silence fills the cavern, and I don’t stop. I point at the council members and my strength wanes, but I fight on. “You sit here in your cave and accuse me of treachery. When no one was there to help me. I saw Johnny have a magazine shot into his face; I was there when Elder Bishop had a knife driven in his heart. I died there, and God help me, I want revenge; but I can’t do it on my own.”
A young man motions for Terry to escort me out. Terry leads me down another hallway and shows me to an empty bed.
“Get some rest, Finny. The council will think on what you’ve said here today. Didn’t I mention to take it easy?” I chuckle, my lips crack open and begin to bleed. “Yeah, you made mention of it.” He nods. “Good night.” I’m asleep before my head ever touches the bed.
In the morning, I wake to a warm room. I look around, people are in the other bunks, my stomach rumbles from hunger. My lips are chap, so I get out of bed and wander down the hall looking for a bathroom. Instead of a bathroom, I find the councilwoman. She looks up at me as I enter the room.
“Can I help you stranger,” she asks. Her voice is a quiet thunderstorm. Her eyes are like a cloudy day, a storm brews behind her grey eyes. I shake my head. “I’m looking for a latrine or a cat hole.” She stands to her full height, maybe five feet in all. Using one finger, she beckons for me to follow her. Together, we walk down the hall.
“How was Beth, when you saw her at the camp?” Her voice quietly carries in the narrow tunnel. I turn and look at her. “Beth was very kind to me. She told me, Tim Bowers was her brother.” The councilwoman nods. “Yes, both of my children are out there somewhere. I don’t blame you for not fighting, but I can’t forgive you for not trying.” She gestures to a room off the main pathway. “Here is where you dispose of your waste. I am Michelle Bowers. When you’ve eaten, there is a meeting in the room where we met you last night. I ask that you join us.”
When I finish my business and wash my hands, a young man waits for me in the hall. He escorts me to a small dining room, where I eat two bowls of Corn Flakes. My milk is the milk substitute given by the WIC program. I choke it down and the young man leads me to the meeting. In the room are every fit person who appears to be able to fight. In the center of the throng stands a man wearing fatigues, and doing his best John Wayne impression. “We’re going to take the fight to them! We may die, but at least we will go out fighting!”
“Yeah,” shouts the throng. I watch from the back. Michelle and Terry watch me. Michelle whistles loudly and the room quietens.
“Besides bum rushing a main camp, what is our plan for rescuing our people?” The fatigue wearing man, Josiah is his name, comes forward and points at a poster board. “We are going to use a method Mohammad Ali made famous, the rope-a-dope. The main force will draw their attention into a near ambush. While their attention is on them, the secondary group will rescue our people.”
Michelle looks at Josiah and nods her head. “Okay, but what is the plan to get our people out of there? What happens if the main force is broken? Who is going to lead the main force?”
“Michael Finny will lead the diversion. I will lead the rescue party.” Josiah smirks as the throng shouts its approval. I lift my hand. Michelle turns to me and beckons for me to speak.
“Um, Michael Finny is unaware of this plan to lead a diversion. Especially, one against a massive force with modern technology.” Josiah sneers at me. “Are you a coward, Michael Finny?” I step into the center of the throng with Josiah, he backs up and assumes a defensive stance.
“No, I’m not a coward. I’m also not stupid. Going up against a main force, in broad daylight, when they see you coming is suicide. You won’t get in with a rescue party because we will all be dead.”
“What do you suggest then,” Michelle asked. “Do you have an alternative?” I nod and look at Josiah. “At some point, they will move the prisoners to a labor camp or some other type of setting. We gather intelligence and set off an ambush at a choke point. We disable the vehicle, rescue the prisoners and scrounge their equipment. Long term, we can’t hold out without reinforcements, but we will be able to hinder them from moving around easily.” Murmurs escape from the crowd, and I put up my hand. “Plus, our dead won’t be as astronomical, as it would be if we attack a main camp in daylight. We can use hit-and-run raids to keep us fed and stock up on goods.” Michelle motions for the council to gather.
“We will consider both proposals. We will meet here this evening to discuss our decision.” The throng disperses and I wander the halls until I find the bunk I slept in last night. I crawl inside and fall sound asleep.