Chapter One

I remember people saying that the first battle of the war was nothing. The second battle was nothing either and lulled our people into a false sense of security. It was the third battle that really woke the world up. I hear the old folks saying that it was like what happened at this place called Shiloh. It wasn't the bloodiest battle to come but it was the one that made folks realize that fighting a war on our own soil with modern weapons was going to be unlike any war we'd ever fought. And unlike most post-apocalyptic stories that always seemed to involve a massive conflagration from nuclear weapons where no one knew how to say stop fast enough, a few nukes and dirty bombs did not the end of the world make.

Oh, there were a few countries that have slipped into the dark and won't be returning any time soon, but there aren't as many of those as you would think. Most everyone on the planet is just trying to get by because this fool war continues. Sometimes on our soil, sometimes not; not near as frequently any place as when it started but no one has called a cease fire either. It is like some never ending visit to the tooth drawer … the pain just goes on and on and on, sometimes less, sometimes more, but it never goes away completely.

My folks and I were stationed in Florida when my world turned upside down the first time. I was eleven and right full of myself. Oh I wasn't a smart aleck, my folks would have never stood for that, but I was a smart kid in a modern world with all the conveniences you could imagine right at my fingertips. My little brother was much the same except you have to add Little League in there. Dad was a Sergeant in the Air Force and Momma worked part time at a fabric store for the luxuries that Daddy's paycheck wouldn't cover. My brother and I went to a virtual school – meaning we schooled at home using computers hooked up the school district, which was why we were home that day.

The power flickered and the ground shook for a long time. It wasn't a nuke or I wouldn't be sitting here writing in this here fool journal but what it was was bad enough. They'd loaded some fast boats and aimed 'em at MacDill USAF Base; come in under the radar like some kind of science fiction stealth covered invaders. People said that they'd shot out of the cargo hold of some container ship like someone spitting watermelon seeds but I don't know whether that is true or not. You hear so many stories and the history books keep getting revised depending on who is winning. The bad guys also attacked by land, some as suicide bombers. Different groups still use that trick though it is going out of fashion. The truly willing ones are few and far between these days because apparently martyrdom isn't quite as profitable as it used to be.

They had good reason to pick MacDill; it was where a lot of strategic Air Command stuff was located which was why my father was stationed there. He was an air traffic controller with lots of special training on things he wasn't allowed to talk about. I wish he'd just been some regular guy that didn't know nothing about nothing. Maybe that way he wouldn't have died that day and taken most of Momma with him.

When the ground stopped shaking – we didn't live all that far from the Base – I ran and turned on the TV. I'd heard enough even at 11 to understand most of what was going on but I didn't know what to do with that knowledge. So I fell back on what I did know. Daddy had always told us if such and such was to happen what we were supposed to do. One of those things was to call our relatives out of state if the phone lines were still up; they weren't. The next thing I tried was to get online and couldn't do that either. I knew where a spare cell phone was in the house but it was for emergencies only … well it was an emergency. I couldn't get a call out but I was able to send texts and I did it like crazy but it seemed that no one was on the other end to answer me back except a cousin in college and he said that he'd get messages to the rest of the family and for us to just stay put until Dad and Mom got home.

Dad never came home, and it took two days for them to let Mom in. She was fine until she saw us and then she and my little brother – who'd been pretty good up to that point – fell apart. They were a real mess. I just looked at the man that had come with Momma and he looked at me. He bent down and explained about Daddy and told me that I'd have to be a good girl and to help my Mom because we needed to pack up and leave the area by the next day. I almost got mad that he was talking to me like I was four years old and then I realized maybe it was just easier for him to believe I didn't understand what was going on, that it was too sad for him to think about a kid living with what had just happened.

I led Momma and my brother inside as the man got back into the big truck that still had lots of people in it, all of 'em looking like death warmed over. I asked Momma what she wanted to pack first because if we didn't start pretty soon we'd run out of time and wouldn't be able to take nothing with us. She got a little mad 'cause I wasn't like her and my brother but I was more like Daddy even then. I do my crying in private thank you very much. 'Sides, I knew with Daddy gone he'd be counting on me to do the right thing … and the right thing right then was not falling apart no matter how bad I wanted to on the inside.

Momma got over her mad just as fast as she'd gotten that way. She knew I was just like Daddy too 'cause she was the one forever telling me that. And Momma was smart in the way she needed to be smart. She might not have gone to college but she knew how to make do with what she had. I guess you'd call her a resourceful type person. We siphoned all of the fuel we had around the house into the camper Daddy had bought the summer before. Sometimes just for the heck of it we'd take a vacation in the backyard and sleep in it. It didn't look like much but it did for us pretty well. Lucky for us that both vehicles were at home because both my parents had carpooled that day and the tanks were full because the next two days were supposed to have been their turn to carpool. There was enough to fill both tanks on the camper and a couple of gas cans.

Next thing we did was take all of the food out of the house and pack it away in the cabinets in the camper, under the seats and any other nook and cranny we could devise. The power was off so all the perishables had to be eaten as we went. The freezer had died the month before and my parents hadn't been able to replace it and Momma said it was in a way a blessing because that meant that we had less food that was just going to spoil. Next came our camping gear which had to be put where we could get at it in case we needed it. After that it got hard. Momma started crying every time she had to leave something of Daddy's behind. And when Momma cried so would my brother. I finally got him to lay down on the sofa and he went to sleep. That just left Momma. I got to where I didn't mind her crying; it was when she was silent that it got scary.

Soon enough we were down to just enough space for the three of us to squeeze in. My brother wanted to sit up front and started to make a fuss but for the first time Momma really laid down the law with him. She gave me the map and told me I had to follow it like religion in case we had to get off the highway and I'd need to tell her which way to go. I was good at that sort of thing so it didn't surprise me. Daddy used to make a game of it. He used to make a game of a lot of things and looking back I realize he was teaching me more than how to win a game … in his own way he was teaching me how to survive.

We eventually got where we were going but it took three times as long to get there as it should have and we were running on fumes that last mile down the old gravel road. It was the family farm and we weren't the only ones that came running for refuge. Matter of fact we were just about the last ones that could be taken in. As it was one of my uncles complained that the place looked like a Red Cross camp after a tornado went through. Tents and RVs and campers all over the place, but that meant there were hands to do all of the work too. And boy did we work.

There was no fuel to run the tractors so everything had to be done "the old fashioned way." Usually that meant handing us kids a hoe and telling us to get to work. And if I wasn't hoeing I was feeding animals or washing or doing something useful. Play time was a thing of the past.

The work was too much for some and they left in search of a better situation. Not many found it. Store bought stuff got scarce or expensive or both. Some people did pretty well and some people didn't. You couldn't say it was living on the farm that made it better for us; it is what those living on the farm knew how to do that made it better for us. My brother and I were the two youngest that remained after a bunch of the rest of the family left. Any of them that were close to my age were boys so I was much in company with adults and of those adults it was mostly my great grandmother, her sister, and a couple of Momma's aunts that I preferred to spend time with. I spent time with Momma of course but she wasn't the same woman she was before. It's like something had broken. She preferred being with her Daddy – her and my grandmother tended to brangle – and with them went my little brother.

This suited everyone. I saw Momma every day but didn't have to watch over her every day. I didn't mind it when she cried but that brokenness that came to the surface sometimes just ate me alive. Too it seemed that me being so much like Daddy and looking like him too made it hard for her to be around me, or at least I finally figured that out after I overheard my grandmother and great grandmother talking. Might not have been the most mannerly thing to do but it was about the only way a kid could find things out when the adults didn't think they were old enough to understand it.

That's also how I found out most folks thought I was strange. OK, not strange maybe but odd and eccentric certainly. In short order I'd gone from this scrawny city girl to whatever I'd become. I could lift a five-gallon bucket of feed corn without calling for my cousins to help. I'd learned to shoot a .22lr so well my grandfather had assigned me one of my own to use and care for and when he saw I was as reasonable with the matching pistol he cut me a holster out of an old leather tool apron and I was to wear it everywhere I went.

And I went everywhere; I had to when I was gathering all the wild things that were good to eat or needed for medicine, or just because some grown up had told me to. Granddaddy would take me out deep into the tree line and tell me to bring back so much of such and such and then leave me to get home by myself. Mamaw and Aunt Lois would hand me a leaf off of something and tell me to go to such and such a place and bring them a handful or a peck back and woe if I made an excuse for not doing just as they said or taking so long I started to worry someone.

The most obvious way I changed was how I spoke. Now even today if I concentrate and try real hard I can talk like I received some proper education but it was just easier to give up talking like a city kid on a regular basis since the people I loved best didn't speak that way. Matter of fact I took it the other extreme entirely and started using the words and phrases of the folks two and three generations my senior. I wanted to be like them so I never saw any other point than to talk like them.

Life was hard and the war continued. We listened to the radio every night when there wasn't a black out. Many states came to use their own currency though it was more like a form of IOU since it wasn't backed by anything of any sort of value. Laws changed and changed again. There was a mandatory curfew, especially for kids. States had their own militias in addition to the old National Guard system. There were rationing books and then there weren't when they found out there simply wasn't even enough stuff to be worth the cost of the ration books. The government tried price controls and that only made things worse so they took the controls off and first there was rampant inflation and then a period of rampant deflation and then the ball would bounce again. Instead of a draft there was mandatory service in the military for every male citizen – and some illegals that were conscripted too which scared and surprised enough of them that there was a mass exodus across the borders going north and south; of course it wasn't any better there and could be somewhat worse.

If you were over thirty years of age you could work your duty off in bits and pieces by doing things like repairing and maintaining the roads or manning local checkpoints, but if you were between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine you had to present yourself at a pick up point and boy you better or you were in some hot, hot water. Didn't matter if you couldn't walk, hear out of one ear, and was three-quarter blind they would find something for you to do. One of my uncles said we were going to lose a whole generation as cannon fodder. It wasn't quite that bad, but it was bad enough.

Life went on this way for two years. Momma, Brother, and I were still living in the camper. It'd been pushed between the chicken coop and the north end of the hog lot because it was one of the few pieces of land unfit for growing anything on.

There had been bio-attacks in places, enough of them that it took something really horrific to catch people's attention. But mostly it happened in the bigger cities. There wasn't much reason to attack the small out of the way towns; it didn't make logistical sense, you got more bang for your bomb in metropolises. Only that time the bug escaped quarantine. The only thing those of us that survived it could figure was that it came in from one of the trucks on a Market Day. No one can pin it down exactly and everyone has their own theory, but that is all it is.

Life had slowed down for those of us living in the country, but not that much. It was a hybridized form of that just sucked the life out of people. Wouldn't have been as bad as it was except that a lot of medicines and medical personnel were off doing other things or were just plain unavailable to the common folk.

We were down to a little over two dozen people living on the farm but had been expecting a few more come harvest time. When it was over, only five of us remained; four male cousins and me.

Of all the fool things, I just realized I haven't even writ my own name yet. It's Damaris Evelyn Keehn but most people just call me Riss. My Momma was a Davidson before she married Daddy and that's what folks hereabouts used to call us whether it was our name or not. "Them Davidson kids." Mostly it was because my cousins were a bunch of hellions but the mistake wasn't worth fighting over in my opinion so I let it be; not even Momma minded which kinda made me sad when I let it. The Davidson family farm had survived a powerful lot of bad things in this life going back before the War Between the States … or what most of the history books call the US Civil War. But finally some little ol' bit of nothing that wasn't even visible to the human eye did it in. A germ finally managed to kill what nearly two-hundred years of living, loving, and troubles hadn't.

Two of my cousins were right of an age to have to go into service. They'd been allowed to stay through harvest time but that had been revoked after FEMA came in to clean up the mess of dead. They were packed up so fast and sent off to join the civil service patrol that I didn't even get to say good bye though I hear from them both ever onct in a while.

The civil service patrol is basically to this day little more than a bunch of glorified riot police that put down messes in the city when they look to be getting out of hand. I reckon somebody in government figures they can smother anything if they throw enough bodies at it. My two cousins below that were too young to run the farm so they opted to get placed as farm hands a couple of counties over. They were just counting down the days 'til they could get away from my grandfather and uncle's sharp eyes anyway and were jealous of the older two's escape.

No one seemed to know what to do with me. Some folks told the authorities that I was "simple" but whether they were doing it to play a prank or because they really believed it I haven't the foggiest; it didn't matter to me at the time and still doesn't. No one in the area needed another mouth to feed and out of the area no one was looking for a 13-year-old female field hand, especially if they already had any teenage boy field hands around. Basically I was too young to marry off, too old and too odd to adopt out, and just the right age for the less than desirable male types to take advantage of; all in all more trouble than most folks wanted to fool with.

I continued to live in the camper and tend to the kitchen garden so I could feed myself. No one said I couldn't and I'm not sure I would have paid any attention to them even if they had. A couple of weeks later this moving van shows up out of the blue with a minivan that had seen better days following it. Out of the moving van stepped a uniform with a clipboard, just the type I'd been avoiding when at all possible. Out of the minivan stepped a man even more worse for wear than the vehicle. The new owners had arrived.