CHAPTER NINE

The Grass Creekens were waiting for her on the other side of a gate, and with Carissa still crying and Jade in no state to talk Helen gave them the short version of what the soldier had said, speaking quickly and concisely, ignoring the moans and cries of shock and fear until she was finished. Around her other people in other groups were doing the same- the yard was packed, and the crowd seemed a single living thing, as first one side, then another, sent up sounds of distress and despair, undulating back and forth like waves of wind through grass. The cries and complaints, denials and defiances became louder and louder until Helen wanted to cover her ears and hunker down low to the pavement where she could hide and not be seen, where she could cry and not be heard.

There was a ruckus to one side and they turned to see Jenae standing on the pile of rubble, holding her arms up, calling for silence. Slowly the volume on every side was turned down like a light on a dimmer switch as every head swiveled, staring at her and the poor, bedraggled soldier she'd dragged up onto the pile with her. He looked like he might faint but Jenae paid him no attention as she smiled out at them, calm and certain. The ash had lifted almost completely and everyone could see and hear clearly. Helen felt a twinge of doubt, hard and persistent, in her gut as she watched the drama unfold, as she stared at Jenae's smile. It was neatly, precisely choreographed, and they were the scared, desperate, gullible target audience.

"Everybody please, calm down!" Jenae said even though by now there was not a sound to be heard from anyone. "We need to be calm and rational about this. Fear is our enemy's greatest weapon against us, because it is a weapon we will use to hurt ourselves. Our country has been hurt. We have been attacked by a great, savage, and unknown enemy, and we have been wounded. Our armies are gone, and we don't know where. Our cities have been destroyed and our friends and family members have been savaged, mutilated, murdered."

At this graphic imagery the crowd could not help but let out a sound somewhere between a muffled gasp and a moan and Helen gritted her teeth angrily, staring daggers at Jenae. That was effective, granted, but also cruel.

"But we are left!" Jenae said in a louder voice. "We are still here, even though the rest are gone. That is because we are strong! We are the heart of America, the good, decent, hard-working men and women of the countryside, and we are survivors. We know how to weather the heat of midsummer and the deadly cold of midwinter. We brave the winds and the ice and the snow, and we come through it stronger than ever, ready to work in our fields and raise our animals, ready to take care of and protect our children. We fed and clothed our nation, we gave them meat and we gave them corn and wheat, and if we could take care of our country then, we can help her now!"

There was a smattering of murmured agreement on every side, as soft as rain, but Helen was still frowning. When had Jenae ever worked in a field or raised an animal? She didn't look like the type to let a cow pat get within twenty yards of her.

"We are not going to just let this happen," Jenae said, her voice getting dramatically softer at the end of the sentence. "No, we are not. But we need time to become strong again, and we can't do that where the enemy can find us. We need to regroup, we need to seek out the others that are still out there, and we need to build ourselves somewhere safe until we can fight. So I need you, each and every one of you to think, to think harder than you ever have in your life, for somewhere the might not be safe. Somewhere that you, personally, know that no Russian or Chinese or Turk is ever going to find on a map. I know those places are out there, and it's there we can find the time we need."

She paused a moment as each person glanced hastily at the person nearest them, like schoolchildren looking to their classmates for help on a tough question. Despite herself Helen automatically followed suit, racking her brains for a likely place and looking around to see if anyone else looked like they were coming up with something viable. She knew plenty of places off the beaten path, but they were all on a road or too close to Grass Creek or the highway, or too small for a large amount of people to stay there a while. It was a harder question than it seemed- there was so much to account for, and too little data available. On every side she could see others getting discouraged, facing the same problem, and the tiny blossom of hope that had appeared in their collective minds already began to fade.

Jenae must have sensed it too, because she hastily about-faced. "I know this is a tough one, folks, no doubt about it," she said. "But you think on it because someone, one of you, has the answer. I'm asking you to give me one night, one more night to find out what we can, collect any more survivors who come along, and to think good and long and hard, back to family vacations and ghost stories and local indian tales, anything that might help, anything that might point us in the right direction. Our enemy does not know our home like we do, they do not know our spirit and our strength like we do, and that is how we're going to beat them. Moments like this, moments of proud, free Americans coming together to support each other, to help each other, and to protect each other. As long as we are still one people, as long as united we stand, we will always be stronger than those who try to oppress us."

The grand words echoed around the yard and people stared, shook their heads, doubted, wanting to believe but afraid to in the face of what might be on the horizon. A few looked mildly more cheerful, hopeful, even, but they were the minority. Words were only words.

"We'll come back together here in the morning and decide what to do," Jenae said steadily, appearing unaffected by their small-minded worries and cares. "Until then, think, everybody. Together we will figure out how to keep surviving, and no matter what happens tomorrow will be a brighter day!"

This last was said in a teasing, joking tone as she pointed up at the sky, almost free of ash, and the crowd chuckled obediently, taking pleasure in one simple good thing. The ash had only really lasted one day and one night, but there surely wasn't a single person anywhere around who hadn't been made miserable and hateful by it.

Jenae climbed down off the rubble pile with the soldier right behind her, obedient as a puppy and the crowd turned to each other, talking in low, urgent voices. Helen turned to her own group, the Grass Creekens, who were identically engaged.

"I don't know of anywhere," Yvaine said in an anxious tone. "Not anywhere that would be away from Denver, at least. It's all fields and grasslands out there, where would you hide?"

"I don't know if any of it's a good idea," Penny said softly. "In a group this big what's the point of hiding? You're going to get found eventually."

"Maybe it isn't for very long," Carissa suggested hopefully. "I mean, SOMEONE'S coming, right? The United Nations or something. They're not going to let us just be destroyed. Are they?"

"Of course not," Penny said in a conciliatory tone when no one answered. "Someone will come to help us. But we have to act like no one's coming, and make sure we can survive on our own until then."

"Do you want to go with them?" Helen asked.

"Of course we should go with them, it makes sense!" Yvaine enthused, and on all sides Helen could see heads nodding in agreement. "She's right, we need to stick together to survive. Strength in numbers."

"Numbers mean more people to feed, more fields to plow, more houses and traffic," Penny reminded them. "It's going to be hard enough taking care of just us. There aren't going to be regular trips to the grocery store, remember? We have to do it all on our own. Now, I say we get out of here and start moving. We don't have time to waste on standing here pretending."

"Oh, of course," Yvaine said angrily. "Penny with the answers, Penny to the rescue! Well I remember who shot that helpless man on the side of the road, and if that's the kind of neighbor you're going to be from now on I don't think I'll want to buy a house on your street!"

"If I'm the kind of neighbor that's willing to do anything to protect who I love," Penny said icily, "pretty soon you're not only going to want to live on my street, you'll be asking me if I have a spare room in my house!"

"Let's stay just one more night," Mrs. Corelli said steadily, glancing between them. "It can't hurt to hear what they have to say, even if we don't want to join up with them. And at least in the future we'll know where they are in case we ever need a hand."

"ONE night," Penny emphasized. "Then me and my family are gone, and whoever wants to join us can and whoever doesn't we're saying goodbye to at the gate." She turned on her hill and left, and soon after that the meeting broke up, everyone going their separate ways, most looking more concerned than they had before Jenae started talking.

Helen went back to the trailer to check on Jett and Mayfly, thinking hard. Where could they go that would have everything they needed? They'd need fresh water, open land to plow, a sheltered spot to set up camp- and 'sheltered spots' weren't all that common in the grasslands- not to mention space to pasture their animals, all where nobody would find them. It couldn't be too near a road, but at the same time if they didn't have a road how would they get in and out? And it couldn't be too far from what was left of civilization or how would they get news? On top of that, they had one summer, ONE, to take care of themselves and build some sort of temporary city because once winter hit it would be hunker down and wait it out, just like any other year. If they didn't have more than tents, if they didn't have strong, permanent structures at least started then there was no way they were going to make it.

Jett and Mayfly startled at her approach, anxious without being able to see, but she calmed them down and mucked out their trailer as well as she could, piling the manure to one side of the parking space. It was good they were only staying one night, or she'd run out of room. And Jett and Mayfly needed exercise, she needed to walk them around a bit at least, but with what she'd heard about robbers she didn't feel safe giving them more than a couple quick turns up and down the nearest aisle between spaces before depositing them back in the trailer with some feed to keep them occupied. Then she went back to the truck and pulled out every atlas she had from everywhere she and her mom had ever gone, usually on some half-baked vacation that one of her Mom's boyfriends had planned where Helen had to be taken along at the last minute because no one could be found to watch her. Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming, and South Dakota, those were what she had. She opened Colorado first, found Fort Kit, and began to trace up and down the roads, away from Denver, out into the various middles of nowhere.