The old Buick slowly made its way through the dark countryside, headed away from the high school. The couple inside was elderly, cautious, and tentative on the road. It had been daylight when the meeting at the high school started, now it was well after eleven PM. John's eyes were not what they used to be. He'd had cataract surgery a couple of years ago. It had helped, but seventy-eight-year-old eyes were still seventy-eight-year-old eyes.
He just had to take it easy, and make sure he didn't get in an accident. Before last Saturday an accident might have meant losing the drivers license. That would have been a loss of the freedom they enjoyed; living on their own land, tending the garden, tending the house. It would have meant moving into an assisted living apartment that their daughter had shown them in Wheeling. But that was before last Sunday, when what folks were calling the Ring of Fire came to Grantville, West Virginia.
As he drove the Buick slowly up the hill and out of town, following Route 250, John thought back to the meeting two weeks ago with his daughter in Wheeling. She'd been trying to talk him into moving up to Wheeling. “This is the place I picked out for you and Mom.” She was almost shouting; John was hard of hearing. “Isn't it nice?” He had spent too many years in the textile industry. There was no such thing as OSHA when he started, and hearing protection was for sissies and women. Sometimes he wished he had used those awful cotton ball earplugs. But that was past.
“But these places are hard to get into” she said again, a little too loud.
“I can hear, dammit. There's no need to shout.”
“But Dad, if you'd turn your hearing aid up, I wouldn't have to shout.”
“I said, if you turn your hearing aid up there would be no need to shout”
“Wait a minute, honey. Let me turn up my hearing aid.” The device squealed with feedback as he adjusted it. It never did fit correctly. “There. What did you say?”
“I said that you can move in here, in Wheeling, close to me, Billy, and the kids, but this place is hard to get into.”
“Don't want to, honey," he drawled. “It isn't time. Not yet. Someday, maybe, not yet.”
“Dad, these places aren't easy to get into. And this two bedroom is open now. You should take it.” Elaine looked nervous. "This an assisted living facility, with a nice dining hall. Mom won't have to cook, unless she wants to. There are only a few apartments that have a kitchen."
"It has an electric range, and your Mom never liked electric ranges." John was beginning to feel more uncomfortable by the minute with this conversation.
"Dad, there are only four two-bedroom apartments with a kitchen in the entire complex. And this one is vacant now. I want you to have the extra room of the two bedroom." She paused and smiled sweetly at him. “Dad, this is open now. It doesn't happen very often. You could see the kids more often. And there's a whole lot less for Mom to clean. And this is so much closer to the doctors. You know that's important, Dad. Mom is at the doctor right now. You can't keep driving all that way, and it will be so much easier for Mom." Her smile had changed into something else. It was still a smile, but it had pain around the edges.
“Elaine, honey.” John could still be charming if he wanted to. He didn't want to hurt his daughter's feelings. “Elaine, honey, it's not time for this. Not yet. We like Grantville. It's small, but we like it. And, yes, there's only the one doctor. But he knows us, knows our ways. We have the house. I still do the yard. We have the garden. Where would your mother have her garden if we lived here?”
“But that drive, Dad. It's so dangerous.”
“It's just over an hour and a half from our house to yours. And I've been driving Route 250 since we moved out there twenty-five years ago. Long as we get home before dark, it's all right, honey. It's all right.” He smiled down at her. He was still a tall man, even at seventy-eight. Elaine had taken after her mother. Short, dark hair and eyes, and a little fat. “I enjoy the drive.”
He did enjoy the drive. It represented freedom. But now. Now things were different. Unbelievably different. Unreal. He kept looking out at the moon, and that confirmed the truth. The crazed, hard, real truth. They had gone back in time. Nobody understood how, or why. It had picked them up and turned them around and dropped them down in this new here and now. Except this new Oz was real. And nightmarish. And dangerous. With bands of soldiers that were supposed to be armies terrorizing the countryside. In the middle of a war. Melissa Mailey, the high school history teacher, had told them. No way to get back. He looked at the moon again. He knew they were right. The moon was in the wrong part of the sky . . .
The worst thing he heard at the meeting was that driving wouldn't be allowed for personal reasons. Most people had walked home, but there was no way for his wife Millie to make it. Everyone had told them to go ahead and drive home. She couldn't walk the nearly six miles to their house on the other side of town, near where the Ring of Fire came down and sliced the earth like a scalpel. The Ring ran less than a hundred yards from their home at the north edge of town. What had been the edge of town. They were now driving west on what had been a north south road, back in another time and place.
“Whadaya think there, Millie?” Charming again. Her full name was Militsa, a family name from her Greek and Serbian ancestry. But he called her Millie, as he had done since they met.
“I dunno, John. Garden is pointed the wrong way. It will be on the east now, not the south side. It seems to be about the same time of year, near as they can figure. Growing season should line up pretty well. Least it ain't winter.” Millie sighed. “I hope Elaine is okay.” She paused for several minutes. “I mean, what if the rest of the world ain't around anymore and we're the only survivors?”
“I don't know Millie, I just dunno . . . ” They looked at each other across the dark car. The rest of the ride was silent, except for the noise of the worn Goodyear's on the blacktop.
They arrived home. The porch light was still on, just as they had left it. The house was a one story, framed, two-bedroom home with a living room and an eat-in kitchen. There was a front bay window, and everything was immaculately painted. It was normally quiet there, but the quiet now was eerie. Usually there would be a truck or a car with its tires whining out on Route 250, noises from the town below, and the gentle background hum of civilization. The neighbors at the end of the road were outside the Ring of Fire; the neighbors between their house and Route 250 were away to see their kids in Chicago. John wondered if he should still keep an eye on the neighbor's house. Suppose so. They might come back. Never know.
He opened the door, stood in the doorway, and listened to the house. Quiet. Just the tick tock of the grandfather clock that had been his mother's. The floor creaked, quietly as he entered. The smell of familiar liniments for sore muscles, and the earlier chicken lunch were pleasant, gratifying, comforting. The same as always.
Millie pulled herself up the three steps to the porch using the railing, then stopped to listen to the quiet. Wheezing softly, she stood near him, barely touching. John knew they were both wondering what would come next.
The next morning John woke early. But Millie was already up and sipping coffee at the kitchen table. It was still dark.
“You're up early,” John said. He was standing in the kitchen door archway that led to the living room.
“Been thinking,” she replied. “Thinking about a lot of things.” John waited. You don't spend 58 years with a person and not learn when to listen.
“I've been thinking about this stuff,” she said after a few moments, gesturing to the basket of medications. They kept the amber and white plastic bottles in a small white plastic basket on the kitchen table. She pushed them gently away from her, towards him. The red and white border on the Formica table was worn from years of use at their two places across from each other.
Millie had the most need for ongoing medication. Her stroke of a few years ago, along with her emphysema, had left her dependent on several medications. John was only on blood thinners and some occasional pain medication for his knees and lower back. “There's no chance of us getting back. We don't even know if there's a back to get to,” she said. It was not a question. “Did you hear the wolves last night?” she added after a bit.
“Yes,” he replied. He sat down across from her and took her hands in his. He looked at her for an hour while the sun rose. Millie had sharp, intelligent dark eyes that missed little, and white curly hair. They sat there, saying nothing, just looking at each other. They felt each other's presence, companionship and pain. They felt the house around them start to creak as the morning sun began to warm it. The east exposure popped and cracked as it warmed. Birds began to sing, and the flowers along the house began to open to face the sun. They sat for a while longer, holding hands, quiet, simply being together as they had done for so many years.
“What do you want to do?” he asked.
“I don't want to make a fuss,” she said. “I've never wanted to make a fuss.” She put her head down on the table, sobbing softly. “I don't want to make a fuss . . . ” After a while, it was quiet again and she slowly raised her head and looked up. John returned her gaze, and smiled. Charming smile still. Finally she spoke. “Isn't it odd to see the sun come in that window that way, with the shadows going there. At this time of day the cat used to sit on the back of the couch there in the sunshine, almost all year. There's no sunshine there anymore. Everything is the same, but it's not the same. It's unreal on one hand, and on the other it's very real. Like the sunshine on the couch.”
“It was the moon for me last night,” he said. “The moon was in the wrong spot.”
“I don't want to make a fuss,” she said. “I've never wanted to make a fuss.” There was hint of anger in her voice this time, mixed with frustration. She paused. “The chickens might have a few eggs this morning. Why don't you get some and I'll cook us a nice breakfast of bacon and eggs.”
”Okay," said John, as he rose from the table. He straightened slowly and went out the back door, towards the small henhouse. It was adjacent to the garden. The back yard was expansive, running well away from the house. They had bought the house and the four acres of land up here more than thirty years ago, before he retired. Early in his career he had worked in the quarries in the area, as a heavy equipment mechanic. Then he spent forty years as a maintenance specialist in the mill industry, keeping the spinning machinery running. It was those places his hearing had been damaged by the constant noise of the spinning machinery. He'd torn out many machines over the years. Then he'd crated them up to send to India and Pakistan, as well as Mexico. Soon there were no more textile plants, except for a few. The ones that remained were little more than antiques that made specialty products. It was okay. He was ready to retire. He always hated the business anyway. It was hard, always being away from home. Not to mention, he was constantly caught between labor and management in what was normally a hostile environment.
He went to the henhouse and took a look inside. Whatever the Ring of Fire had done, the chickens didn't seem to mind. Plenty of eggs this morning. As he walked back through the garden, he admired his wife's commitment in the planting and maintaining of it. The garden was substantial. The decorative parts of it were more in the lines of a traditional English garden, with flowers and multiple plants and hedges in the front closest to the house. The back section was for cabbage, corn, peas and beans. There was rhubarb for pies in the spring. The whole thing was surrounded by a fence that was designed to keep the whitetail deer from eating everything in sight. He wondered how the deer were going to feel about the wolves.
The next morning started like any other. Breakfast early, then to the outside chores. Millie went to the garden, slowly, carefully. John had built her a small battery powered cart to sit on as she weeded and tended. The cart had balloon tires he'd salvaged off of a golf cart somewhere. There was a well used trolling motor and an old car battery, and some bits and pieces for a gear reduction steering. It also had a tiny differential and axle removed from a riding mower somewhere. It drove easily and was comfortable for Millie. There was a little shelf he built on it for small tools. They'd widened the rows of the garden to accommodate it. He smiled as he watched her head into the still small plantings.
John then went to the shed. He liked to call it a workshop, but it was just a small shed that had been built some years ago to hold a Model A Ford. Built by the previous owners, not him. It was small, but the roof was good. The floor was dirt, but packed and laden with seventy years of motor oil. It was nicely painted on the outside, like the rest of the place. There was a small electrical service that he had put in shortly after he retired. Inside, the shed was packed with the accumulation of a handyman who had grown up during the depression. That is to say, he threw away nothing that could remotely have another purpose, no matter how badly broken, worn out, or just plain junk.
There was another pile in the back of the shed, under a small lean-to that held bulk junk. Angle iron, a set of pulleys from an old flat leather belt drive that looked like undersized steel wagon wheels, with a broad flat surface where the rim should be. He was going to put them in the ground, half buried at the end of the drive one day. An industrial bit of humor at the expense of the many half buried wagon wheels. He thought that would be funny. Nobody would get it except him, but that was okay. He chucked silently at the thought.
“I suppose all of my junk is going to come in handy,” he muttered. His son-in-law had tried for years to get him to throw some of it away. “Throw it away,” Billy had always said. “Heck,” thought John, “he was just afraid of having to clean out the shed after we died.” Today, John decided he was going to sort out some hardware in one of the jars. Somehow some metric nuts had gotten into the normal threaded stuff. Hated that. He could still tell from looking the difference between a ten-millimeter nut and a 7/16th nut. Hadn't lost that touch. He was just getting to work when he thought he heard a car horn in the driveway.
“Hallo, the house. John, Millie, you there?” John emerged from the shed into the bright sunshine. The air was very crisp and clean. The Grantville city police car had pulled up behind the Buick. When the weather was bad, he would pull the Buick into the barn, but they had left it out last night. The policeman, who looked familiar, was standing behind his open car door, both hands below the window and out of sight, his eyes moving constantly until he spotted John coming around the corner of the shed. As John moved closer, he saw another person, this one a woman, get out of the passenger side of the patrol car. She too looked wary, eyes constantly moving to the tree line that marked the edge of John's property, to the barn, and finally to the shed.
“You remember me John? I'm Officer Onofrio. This is Maureen Grady.”
“Hi, John,” said Maureen, smiling broadly. She walked around the car and towards him to shake his hand, arm outstretched. She looked about thirty or so, light brown hair pulled back into a ponytail, with a flannel shirt and jeans. She also had a.380 semi-automatic pistol in a holster on one of her slightly wide hips. “I'm Maureen Grady. I think you know my father in law, Dennis Grady, Sr.?” She continued to smile.
John looked slightly suspicious. Maureen Grady had that same tone that his daughter had when she was trying to talk him into moving to Wheeling. Ingratiating, pleasant, and just a little too much smile. He shook her hand. It was small and smooth in his large and rough hand. “You married Dennis' boy? He is Dennis, Jr., if I recall?” She nodded in the affirmative to him, ponytail bobbing slightly, and he continued, “I was working with your father in law when Dennis, Jr. was born, I believe.”
“You have an excellent memory, Mr. Trapanese,” said Maureen, still smiling. She moved a step back, apparently to take him all in. She crossed her arms and smiled a little broader.
Now John was very suspicious.
“Where is Mrs. Trapanese?” asked Officer Onofrio. His question came out a little strong, edgy even, John noticed. His eyes were still scanning, not stopping, moving from the tree line, to the garden, the corners of the house, and the sides of the barn. He still stood behind his open door, the motor still running. “Is she in the house?” he asked. This time the question was a little softer, friendlier. As if to make up for the abruptness of the first question.
“Nope,” answered John. “Garden.” He gestured over his shoulder towards the garden. “How is Dan Frost doing?" John had heard the police chief had been wounded on the first day of the Ring of Fire in a skirmish with some German troops. Tilly's men, they were called. They had just destroyed some big town and killed just about everyone in it. They were still out there, roaming the countryside, destroying, burning, killing and stealing all in their path. They said Dan Frost was doing okay at the meeting the other night, but to not ask would be impolite.
“He's doing well,” said the policeman. “Thanks for asking, sir.”
Millie came rolling out of the garden on her little electric cart. The cart was very low to the ground; John had built it that way. It moved quietly towards the house. At the side of the house there was a short ramp that went up about eighteen inches and leveled out, ending in a handrail. Next to the handrail was a small box with a cord coming out of it. The ramp and the railing were attached to the house. Millie piloted the little cart alongside the house and up the small ramp, her back to the house and her feet progressively getting higher from the ground. When the ramp leveled out, it was exactly the right height for Millie to slide out of the seat and stand up, supporting herself on the railing. Steadying herself for a moment, she reached around and plugged the battery charger into the cart. Then she began to walk towards them, wheezing slightly. The ramp was something John was proud of. It made it easier for her to sit down and get up from the low cart.
“That's very nifty,” said Maureen. She sounded like she meant it. “Did you build that?”
“Yes. The ramp and the cart. Cart came first.” He smiled. “Not the horse.”
Maureen paused a moment, like she wasn't sure what to say. Then it dawned. “Oh, cart before the horse. I get it.” She laughed, a real spot of laughter, that was clearly different than her earlier smile. “I didn't quite expect that,” she said, still smiling. Officer Onofrio gave a small smile, too; he had heard the joke before. He had been out here on two separate ambulance runs that had taken Millie to the hospital a few miles away.
"May we go inside and talk?” asked Maureen. She gave a quick glance to Onofrio, who nodded slightly in the affirmative. “Do you want to wait out here, Officer?”
“That would be fine, ma'am,” replied Onofrio.
As the three of them eased into the vinyl kitchen chairs with a cup of coffee, Maureen saw the neat kitchen, the white plastic basket on the middle of the table with medications, and the worn table. It reminded her of her parents, years ago. The details were different, but the feeling was the same, they were living out the last years as best they could. This was going to be hard. “Well,” Maureen said, letting her smile return, the one that made both John and Millie look at her with suspicion, “I suppose you're wondering why I'm here?”
“Not really” said Millie, cutting into the flow of where Maureen was going. “You want us to move out of here, don't you? Too dangerous, or too far from town? For our own good?” Millie was smiling, comfortable, and just a bit argumentative.