This is part two of a three part story by Rebecca Zornow.
You can read Part 1, Prepper in Demand, here.
Photo credit to Alex Holyoake on Unsplash.com.
The tang of vinegar lingered in Frederic’s mouth. The pickled asparagus and garlic cloves were tasty, but Frederic ate more pickled food recently then was used to and it made his mouth sensitive. The raw area on the left side of his tongue ached as he took another bite of sour asparagus.
“No. No. I’m not eating. Mom, stop that,” his sister Wendy hit the fork away from her mouth.
Their mother scowled. “This is completely ridiculous, Wendy. You are acting like a fool.”
Tears escaped Wendy’s eyes. Moments ago she was full of defiance and anger, but suddenly she was down trodden and meek. Since their lives changed, it was common for her to flip rapidly between moods as if someone else held the remote.
His father threw his hands up in the air, but didn’t say anything. He had a shouting match with Wendy that morning and they hadn’t spoken since.
Frederic took another bite and chewed gingerly.
The family of four sat around their dinner table in the dark. It was the evening meal and since fall was approaching, the light was dim in the house. They had a large supply of candles in the basement that Tara put out periodically, but spearing your food by the light of a candle took some getting used to. Around the neighborhood, many houses were dark, either saving their candles for the winter or already run out.
Frederic didn’t look at the candle or his family. He focused on finishing his plate so he could leave the table to wash it.
Wendy broke out with a wet sob and pushed her plate of food away.
“Okay, okay. I’m sorry I yelled at you.” Frederic recognized this tactic. It was one of his mother’s staple parenting tricks. She’d start gruff and rough and then abruptly coerce you to do just what she wanted. “But you gotta eat something. You don’t want to waste this, do you?”
Wendy looked up and put her hands on the table. “Oh my God. This is completely ridiculous. Do you hear yourself, mother?” She took a short, shallow breath and stuttered. “This is. What. Do you.” After several false tries she started again, “I am not eating until we give out some of our food. There are people starving.”
“Wendy,” Tara started, “No one is starving. Some people have less food than they’re used to, but that’s all.”
Wendy shook her head. “Don’t lie to yourself. Where do you think Henry went?”
Tara looked confused, “Henry?”
“Henry the dog,” Wendy squealed. “Lea’s dog. Someone ate him!”
“Honey, no one ate Lea’s dog. It probably left when they ran out of dog food.”
“No,” Wendy said. “He was tied up outside overnight and Lea said there was blood on the ground the morning.”
Martin rolled his shoulders, shrugging, until he caught Tara’s eye, and stopped. He reasoned, “People are doing what they need to do. The dog’s just an animal.”
Frederic finished the food on his plate and started on his water.
“No, dad, things are changing. People are going hungry.”
“And how much of our food do you think can sustain the neighborhood, huh? You think we give our food away and everything will be fine? No,” Martin’s face was more than stern. He was getting angry. He grabbed Wendy’s arm, “Your mother and I are keeping you from starving. You need to cut this shit out.”
Wendy wrenched her slender wrist away and looked her father in the eye. “I’m going to tell the neighborhood leaders. I’ll tell them how much food we have and that they need to distribute it fairly.”
Frederic looked up, mouth open. That statement was impossible to ignore, and it looked like his father felt the same way. Martin’s eyes squinted and he bared his teeth slightly. Frederic had never seen his father this angry.
Martin reached over again, very slowly. Wendy shrank in her seat. He put his hand heavily on the back of Wendy’s neck. Everyone at the table was silent. Frederic picked up his water to avoid looking at the scene.
“If you so much as threaten to tell, even pretend that you’re going to go public with our secret, I’ll shoot you myself.”
Wendy’s face went white. Tara gasped. Frederic chocked on his water and began coughing.
Tara jumped up and busied herself by hitting Frederic on the back. Frederic coughed and wheezed. He stood up and leaned over the table, trying to clear his lungs. Did dad really say that? What the hell?
Frederic’s coughing slowed down and he cleared his throat a few times.
Frederic knew his mother would never contradict his father. He glanced at Wendy. She was shaking. Was she taking dad’s threat seriously? Should he?
“Dad, I don’t think Wendy was going to say anything. Things are really scary right now. You can’t—” Frederic started over, “I don’t think she’s going to tell anyone.”
“Frederic, sit down. Wendy, go to your room. Do not let me hear this nonsense come out of your mouth again.”
Wendy’s eyes darted to Frederic and her mother and then she got up quickly, plate left unfinished on the table. Frederic heard her walk quietly up the stairs a few seconds later.
Tara assessed Frederic’s presence in the room before tentatively starting, “Mart, she’s still a little girl inside. She doesn’t understand why the power left and she doesn’t know if life will ever go back to the way it was.” Frederic knew from eavesdropping that that was just about as much of an opposition his mother would present to his father.
“It’s time that Wendy realizes what’s going on and how much danger she can bring on herself. On all of us.” Martin put his elbows up on the table and his forehead in his hands. He looked more tired than angry now. The three of them sat quietly for a few moments and Frederic heard Wendy moving around in her room upstairs.
“I said it for her own good,” Martin said, partly to himself. He raised his head then. “I think she’s giving out food to her friends. Or the neighbors. The food’s going somewhere.”
Frederic’s ears burned. He tried not to look nervous.
Since the EMP attack, Frederic gave weekly bags to Monica’s family. There had been no power for months. Food distribution had ground to a halt and no one knew what to do next.
Frederic didn’t think it would be missed alongside the food his mom took to cook meals.
His stomach flipped. He had to fess up. If Wendy took the blame for his actions—
Tara took a big breath in as if she thought the air would be sucked out of the room at any minute and then burst with, “I took the food, Martin. I gave two bags of food to Patty’s family.” Frederic jerked back slightly at the news, relieved for a moment.
“Dammit, Tara. What’d you go and do that for?”
Frederic’s mom spoke quickly now, getting out the story that had settled itself on her shoulders. “They’re completely out of food. Patty stopped by and offered to wash our clothes at the river in trade for food. Patty’s got a newborn, but her milk is almost dry. She hasn’t been eating enough and she shouldn’t be trying to work so soon after labor.”
“And who’s she going to tell next?” Martin’s voice dropped dangerously low.
Tara tried to explain again. Frederic got a shock when he realized his mom was trying to convince him too. She thought he was on his dad’s side. “There’re all these rumors about a government supply of food coming, I thought maybe it’d get here before anyone else found out.”
Martin banged his hand on the table. Tara jumped. “Government food?” he bellowed. “It’s been four months. If the government was going to help, we would have seen it by now. The grocery stores are completely empty except for spoiled food. The nearby farms have been picked clean. Any food left in warehouses is rotting, too far away from us to be any good. Soon the snow is going to fall and there won’t even be plants to eat. I’m out there killing myself trying to collect twigs to burn this winter. Twigs. And God help us if there’s a rabbit to be found because people will start fights over the right to hunt a rabbit or squirrel, much less keeping the damn thing.”
Frederic sat rigid on his chair. Earlier he noticed the slight dark mark in front of his dad’s ear.
“May I be excused?” Frederic said. He couldn’t take any more.
His father waved his hand dismissively.
Frederic stood up and carried his nearly spotless plate to the sink. Inside the sink was a bucket filled with a small amount of cold, soapy water. Every morning his mother put less and less water in the sink bucket to be used for cleaning throughout the day.
He scrubbed the plate, fork, and knife while listening to his parents’ low voices in the next room. The tense tone told him they were still fighting.
Frederic hadn’t seen Monica for four days. The last time they met up he gave her the weekly allowance, but when she asked him why it was half the amount of the previous week, he snapped.
“You know, if your family had prepared, it wouldn’t even be a problem,” His father’s words tumbled out of his mouth. “I don’t know how long before my parents find out.
Monica’s eyes kindled with rage. “How long before your parents find out? Eric, my sister is hungry. She wouldn’t get out of bed this morning. There are people all around us getting sick and weak. I’m so sorry your parents could find out we’re dating.”
“No, it’s not that.” Frederic tried to peddle things back. “I’m not worried about that.” He said enough to give Monica pause. “I really am going to tell them, I just don’t know how. My dad is going to flip when he finds out that I’ve been giving your family all this food.”
Oh no. He said something wrong.
“I can’t believe this! You think your dad’s going to care that you were lying, not about me, but about all the food you have hoarded away while people are close to starving?”
“No! I’d throw these cans at you if I didn’t need them so badly. Get out of here.” Monica swung the plastic bag full of canned goods at his chest.
Frederic remembered how she turned and ran away, down the dark street, the plastic bag and tins rustling.
He froze. There was a knock at the door.
Frederic looked sharply at his parents. His mother’s mouth formed a silly looking O. But his dad. Frederic knew that look. He was pissed.
As quietly as he could, Frederic turned for the stairs, not even drying his hands.
He stopped, his back to his parents.
“Get your gun and come here.”
Frederic heard his parents’ chairs scrape away from the dinner table and he covered his forehead with a wet hand. If only things could go back to a time when the electricity worked and he was still secretly dating a girl and his parents simply had a lot of food in the basement.
While sliding open a kitchen drawer, Frederic looked over at the front door. His dad was talking to someone outside.
He checked the safety and then tucked the gun in his pants and started for the door but stopped. That felt wrong. He took the gun out and covered his hand with a dishtowel, trying to look like he just finished washing dishes, which was true.
At the door wasn’t a neighbor looking to barter or trade. There were four men and two women. The person in front was casually holding a gun in her hand.
“-which is why we need you to be honest with us,” one of the men finished.
This was not going to go well. Frederic’s heart pattered quickly.
His father said, “I told you all from the beginning, you take care of yourselves, we’ll take care of ourselves. You need to get off my property now.”
A young man pushed someone aside to get up front. “Martin, it’s Peyton, we met before.”
“Yeah, I remember you. You still need to get off my property.”
Peyton kept talking calmly, “We got a notice that you have a large cache of resources in your home. The community has done a good job collecting rainwater and getting back to business, but there’s still a severe food shortage. I don’t want to panic anyone, but we’ve been talking about the possibility that not everyone will make it through the winter. Your supplies could help ease that.”
Frederic did the math weeks ago. There was enough food downstairs to feed the neighborhood for up to four or five months if everyone ate lean. Wouldn’t that make a difference? Getting everyone to spring?
“And who told you that I have this supposed secret stash of food?”
Was it Monica? Frederic panicked.
No one on the porch said anything. No one in the house said anything.
Martin nodded. “I see how it is.” He leveled his gun at Peyton’s chest. “I won’t say it again, get out of here.”
The group backed away. When Martin felt satisfied they were all on the dark road, he shut the door, locked it, and fastened the deadbolt he installed.
“Go get Wendy,” Martin directed Tara.
Frederic and his dad stood in silence until the women came back downstairs. He could hear his mom whispering to Wendy.
Martin waited until his family was assembled in front of him before speaking. “Someone told.” Martin’s words were like ice.
Then, Frederic heard two overpowering noises. One was at the back entry of the house. It sounded like someone fired a gun into the locks and was kicking the door down. The other sound was at the front. Frederic watched broken glass scatter across the hardwood floors, right up to the sea foam green rug his mother brought home a year ago. How could he remember what sea foam green was, but didn’t know if he was about to be killed?
Tara grabbed the back of Frederic’s shirt and pulled him and his sister down behind the couch. Martin raced towards the back entryway. Moments later there were shots. Frederic righted himself from the floor and fumbled with the gun, trying to unlock the safety.
“Put it down,” a burly man with thick brown hair stood over Frederic, his gun trained on Frederic’s face. Frederic felt his bowels loosen. He grunted his assent and put the gun on the floor. Someone picked it up, but Frederic didn’t see who.
At the back of the house now there was a lot of shouting. Everyone in the living room quickly followed the noise, Frederic trailed behind in a daze.
In the kitchen he snapped out of it. Frederic had no idea what was happening in the basement, but there was a lot of yelling. People were trying to take his family’s food. He was glad he no longer had a gun, because he didn’t know what to do.
Frederic descended the stairs behind a blond woman that lived on Wreath Street. Downstairs, Frederic peered into the chaos. It was so dark it was hard to see what was happening.
There was ankle deep water covering the basement floor. Frederic’s mind raced. The pipes were empty. The water was off since the electricity went out. That meant…the water containers!
Two 1,000 gallon tanks stood in the supply room. The family had only taken water from the blue tank, and even that was still pretty full. Or at least it was. Frederic heard shouting in the room. Everyone was scrambling like mad to save the food.
The shots must have hit the water barrels and the rush of water tipped over two of the shelving units. The canned items were fine, but the glass containers shattered upon impact. Preserved peaches and artichokes floated in the water along with bits of glass. The water was overloading a long-unused sub pump and grimy water began mixing with the clean. The cardboard boxes along the wall were turning dark with moisture.
“Frederic, take these.” His mother thrust sopping bags of tortillas into his hands. “Take them upstairs.” She turned back in time to see Martin and the heavyset brown haired man grappling over a cardboard box filled with beef jerky. Martin wrenched the box from the man’s hands, which threw them both off balance. The man crashed into one of the flimsy plastic-shelving units and brought the whole thing to the ground.
Wendy came over to Frederic and leaned on his shoulder. He put his arm around her. It was going to be a long winter.
To be continued.
The third and final installment will be posted June 2018.