"Hey! Watch it with that broom." Officer Preston Richards hastily pulled his feet back away from the stiff bristles that threatened the shine of his newly polished shoes. He glanced up from the night sheets he was going over, and looked over the unprepossessing figure before him. The small gray-haired woman in dumpy clothes, with her flesh hanging from her thin frame, was a far cry from the well-dressed matron he had met the day of the Ring of Fire. Then she had been a hard-bodied exercise maven. Now the only thing hard about her was her eyes. But he'd kept his eyes on her for too long.

"Don't you look at me like I'm some kind of white trash, Mr. Officer Preston Richards," the woman spat. "If I happen to be down on my luck, it's the damned Ring of Fire that took away Joseph and my boys."

Richards recalled the frantic figure he had tried to help on that day the world had been split apart. She had been in town checking out retirement homes, and had been left with only her car and the clothes she had with her. She was desperately attempting to contact her family. Now he tried for a soothing reply. "I've never thought you were trash, Mrs. Sanderlin. I just keep hoping that you'll stop staying with us on such a regular basis."

He glanced back down at the night sheets. He hadn't made it through to the petty crimes section yet, but if LeeAnn was sweeping floors in the station this morning, he knew he'd find her usual entry: "Public Drunkenness, LeeAnn Sanderlin, Drunk Tank." Sentencing for nonviolent public drunkenness had become so routine by now that most of the regulars and semiregulars didn't even go before the associate judge any more. Not unless they demanded a hearing, and most were smart enough to realize that they wouldn't get a lighter sentence by going that route. Instead they were allowed to sleep it off on the thin foam-rubber mats in the drunk tank. The next morning they were given a good breakfast by Carolyn Atkins, then put to work at odd jobs around the station or downtown until released. LeeAnn, like most of the regulars and semiregulars, didn't even need much supervision on her morning's work.

"Well, if a person needs to take a drink or two sometimes to warm the coldness inside, and doesn't hurt anybody by it, then there's no harm done, Preston Richards." LeeAnn pushed harder with the broom. "I don't mind sweeping your floors or cleaning out your cells to repay your hospitality when you bring me in, so we're square there. I don't need charity from anybody. I pay my debts."

"Are you sure you wouldn't like to talk to someone who might be able to help?" He'd tried hard to get her counseling and other help when she started to come apart. But nothing he'd tried had worked. He knew from experience that there wasn't much hope for LeeAnn unless she worked out the problems that caused her drinking binges. But that just stiffened his resolve to continue to try to help.

"No. I don't need to talk to any more experts. None of them know what they're doing, anyway, and nothing they do helps. I can get by on my own."

Richards shook his head as LeeAnn moved off. The sagging flesh at the back of her arms wobbled as she worked the broom. He went back to the night sheets, only to be interrupted again by a raised voice from the next table.

"Whoa! Karl, you nearly took my eye out with that thing!" Officer Ralph Onofrio was rubbing his forehead. "Can't you ever get that pen back together without launching the spring across the room?"

Karl Maurer, one of the newer down-timers on the force, grinned sheepishly. "Sorry, I was just checking to see how much ink is left. I do not want to run out while we are on shift." LeeAnn reached past him to place the offending spring on the table in front of him.

"Well, be more careful with it. We still have plenty of refill cartridges left, but if you lose that spring, the pen is useless. We don't have any replacement springs." Onofrio shook his head.

Maurer carefully reassembled the pen. "Why can you not simply make another one? It seems so simple a task for your technology."

"I'm not sure why not," Onofrio answered. "I've just been told that coil springs aren't doable."

"Well, it is good then that a pen spring is not critical." Maurer put the pen back in his pocket.

Richards glanced at the revolver Officer Maurer was wearing. He hadn't been intensively trained on semi-autos, then. He decided to interrupt. "Pen springs aren't critical, no. But since it seems we don't have the resources to do anything about making new springs, we'll have to get by without. That means being careful with all the springs we do have." The officer nodded gravely. Richards picked up the night sheets and left the room, passing LeeAnn who was still working her broom by the door.

* * *

Guenther Wendel stopped LeeAnn as she walked toward the women's locker room at the Public Works Department Recycling Center. "Herr Officer Richards called and said you would be in after noon today. He is concerned about you. I also am growing concerned with your mornings off. You need to be more careful with yourself."

LeeAnn scowled at her supervisor. Arrogant little German twerp, she thought. The coldness started to grow inside her again—memories of her comfortable, fulfilled life before the Ring of Fire warred with the bleakness of her current condition. The last thing she needed was to have to deal with one of the Germans she associated with the change. "I haven't used up all my sick days yet. Until I do, you have no cause to complain. I'm still the best sorter you've got."

She pushed past Wendel into the locker room, where he couldn't follow. As she changed into her work clothes, she was still muttering. "They don't pay me enough to put up with this crap. Even the damn Germans leave here as soon as they can. I need to find some angle and get out." Her words ran up against the memories of all those jobs she'd lost when she fell apart in the year after Joe and the boys were taken. She licked her lips, wishing for some liquid warmth as the cold inside her grew some more.

LeeAnn threw herself into sorting. If she thought of it as a big treasure hunt, it sometimes could be interesting enough to take her mind off other things. There was a large pile to work through. Since the Ring of Fire, all metals, plastics, synthetic fabrics, rubber and glass were required to be separated from other trash and set out for recycling. "Strategic Materials" they now were, not just trash anymore. The announcements had been clear: 'You don't have to get rid of anything you want to keep, but if you put them on the curb, Strategic Materials MUST be in the recycle pile.'

Hmm, this may be promising, LeeAnn thought. She pulled out a ripped and tattered piece of nylon luggage. Yes! It was one of those bags capable of being used as a backpack. The zippers were all popped, and the rips made it unsuitable for further use as a backpack. But the contour bars were still there. She felt the two flat bars that ran under the nylon on the side of the bag the shoulder straps were on. She easily bent the bars with her hands. She sliced open the nylon and removed the precious aluminum.

We're very sorry, but this content is only available to current subscribers.

Perhaps you just need to log in.  If you're already logged in, please check if your subscription has expired by looking here.

If you're not already a subscriber you need to know that our columns and editorials are free, along with a few other items, but almost all stories and all downloads are paid only.

If you want to read the entire gazette, you need to either subscribe here, or purchase a download of any single issue at the Baen Books e-book store  or at Amazon.com.

- The Grantville Gazette Staff