I started this story two years ago as an exercise in personal preparedness.
The result? I discovered I was woefully unprepared, both practically and philosophically, for the challenges and choices that hard times would present me with.
Our present situation with COVID-19, for all its real gravity, still barely registers on the scale of real and potentially repeatable disasters that have occurred throughout human history, including very recent memory. For those of us who have the luxury of doing so, I think now is the perfect time to reflect on what we are doing to prepare not only to weather the next storm ourselves, but set ourselves up to help others with less of an ability to help themselves.
That's why I'm sharing this story now. I hope it speaks to you.
1: The Gathering Storm
Tell me the story again, Dad.
Already? Did you forget that quickly?
No. But I’m cold. I want to hear you tell it.
You know, there’ll come a time when the last thing in the world you’ll want is one of my stories. At least that’s how it used to be. Maybe it could have been different, now.
You’re stalling, Daddy.
Ok. Let me put my storyteller hat on. There it is. But you might have to help me. Daddy’s very tired tonight.
Why? It’s too early to be tired. You’re always tired.
Yes. But soon I won’t be.
Because you’re going to sleep a long time tonight and wake up and be rested.
Baby. You have to tell her.
Not yet. Please. Not yet.
Tell me what? Daddy, you’re still stalling.
Ok. Lie down right here, between me and the fire. Are you getting warm now?
Yes. You’re whispering, Daddy.
So that you have to stay close to me.
Do you feel the warmth of the fire on your back?
Yes. You asked me already. But you’re cold. Shouldn’t you be close to the fire?
That’s why I have you. Now, if you’re very quiet, and very still, pretty girl, I’ll tell you stories of a better time. In a place that we once knew.
Were we always warm there? And dry?
Yes. We were warm there. Even better. We had a place that we could call home.
I don’t know. Doesn’t matter now. Too late.
I don’t remember it.
You were there. All of us were.
Was it a good life? Daddy, are you awake?
I told you, you might have to help me. I’m very tired.
You always say it was a good life. A life no one could touch.
Yes it was, pretty girl. It was.
Blood pounded in the soldier’s ears as he sprinted up the sandy slope. The world shrank to a pinpoint of light and sound. Artillery boomed. Light flashed in the darkness. Men fell. This the soldier registered as background information, something he did not understand but which he filed away in his brain for a time when fear had not reduced him to raw, uncalculated emotion. Nothing mattered but the top of the ridge.
He was acutely aware of his dwindling stamina. He must not deviate. No matter the danger, he must not turn, or he would collapse before he gained the hill. Motion was life. To stand still was certain death.
Suddenly the hill leveled out. The soldier’s eyes snapped to the left toward a cluster of figures hurrying up the other side, silhouetted in the light of a star flare. One of them stopped abruptly. A long, steaming bore rose from beneath the gleaming trench coat, swiveled, took aim. The breathless soldier skidded to a halt and whipped his own weapon, his salvation, to bear -
And the screen winked out.
“Really? Now!?” Jesse Stevens flung his controller to the floor.
He leaned back in his gaming rocker, rubbing his eyes. As he did, a gigantic silhouette stumbled out of the bedroom down the little hall. Jesse’s roommate, Caz, shuffled toward the kitchen, groping at the wall in the dark, taking comically small steps for such a big guy. Jesse couldn’t help but laugh.
Caz jumped. “Jesse?”
“If I didn’t know any better, I’d think the world’s largest three-year-old was trying to sneak out of my apartment right now.”
Caz smiled good-naturedly. “Generator’s out again.”
“I’ll fill it. I’m gonna hit the store anyway.” Jesse fumbled in his jeans for a lighter and a cigarette as he headed for the door. The blue ring around Caz’s vape pen waggled in the dark as he shook his head.
“You know those things’ll kill you. Tobacco’s old tech.” Caz blew a plume of vapor into the fridge. A jar of pickles and a beer or two glowed in the light from his cellphone. He whistled.
“We’re about cleaned out. Hey, pick up a pizza on the way back, huh?”
A piece of plastic bounced off Jesse’s skull. Jesse picked up the credit card. For a political science major and a pacifist, Caz had pretty good aim. “I’ll see what I can rustle up.”
“Thanks buddy.” A can hissed behind him as he opened the door. “Get us some beer too.”
“Anything cheap will do.”
“I thought you were a man possessed of refined tastes.”
“I’m also a man possessed of a hundred grand in student debt about to come calling.”
“Good point. What if all they’ve got left is Bud Light?”
Caz grimaced. “Desperate times call for desperate measures.”
Jesse laughed and stepped outside onto their concrete stoop, wincing as the humidity hit him. Winter had died uncharacteristically early for western New York, and murdered the spring with it. It was only May 3rd, but it felt like late July. Jesse was unpleasantly reminded of summers at home in Georgia.
He’d never have another summer, anyway. Not really. There was just one week left in his senior year at the University of Rochester. One week left of relative freedom before the real world came crashing through the thinning bubble of his childhood. It only made sense that they’d have to spend it in the dark. It was the third day of the citywide power outage, with no end in sight. If it wasn’t the awful weather, it was always something in Rottenchester.
Jesse and Caz shared the bottom floor apartment in a converted house near the UR. Mill Street was a sort of frankenstein community, a snapshot of a neighborhood in transition. According to Boone, the retired roofer across the street, forty years ago just about everybody on the block had worked for Kodak or the utility company.
Twenty years later, long after digital photography handed Kodak a gruesome, shortsighted death, a few families still clung to the neighborhood; but they were worse than alone. They were relics of a long-dead American dream, islands sinking into a rising sea of zombie houses and drug violence.
Fast forward another twenty years to today, and the floodwaters of recession had finally receded from the city. University of Rochester housing projects had sprouted on one end of the street, and contractors were busy fixing and flipping homes for other students and for the yuppies who worked in the skyscrapers downtown. Cops still came to call at least once a week, though. The crack house next door was one of their favorite stops.
On the first day of the blackout, there had been a neighborhoodwide barbecue. Everybody was out on the street. Music from twenty back yards and every neighboring street warred for control of the airspace. A lot of people were out of work with nothing to do but eat the food in their fridges before it spoiled, drink everything they had on hand, and have a good time. Jesse certainly had. He and Caz had spent the day across the river on campus, tossing frisbees and goofing around with their girlfriends.
On the second day, there was less food and less beer. There were fewer people out, but still a good crowd. People were still having fun, except, it seemed, Jesse’s landlord. He owned ten houses around the city, and every one of them was demanding something from him. Jesse and Caz were one of the last to get their generator delivered. They ran it all night and all day, ran it dry in fact, not once, but twice. Who knew a couple of Xbox’s and plasma screens could suck up that much juice?
Jesse hefted the empty gas can. Oh well. It was a good excuse for a ride. He could visit Kate on campus on the way back. He unlocked his bike from the chainlink fence bordering their little sliver of lawn and pedaled into the street.
That was the silver lining to the blackout, he figured. It gave them more time. This was their last week together, before Kate moved to California for her neurosurgery residency. She’d be spending her days surrounded by high-powered doctors and her weekends fending off deeply tanned, muscular surfers on the San Diego beaches—while he was stuck here. Oh no, Chad, I couldn’t, I have a boyfriend. No, I don’t think he’s ever surfed, but he’s really a sweet guy. He was a history major. Well, he got a job teaching. No, high school. Ninth grade. I know, but it’s very important to invest in the next generation, Chad…
Jesse pedaled faster. He was definitely going to see Kate tonight. He might even add some of those nasty sugary cocktails she liked to the shopping list.
See? What a sweet guy he was. Screw you, Chad.
His thoughts returned to the task at hand. He’d woken up at the crack of noon and spent almost the entire day playing videogames—this was his last chance at collegiate-level procrastination, and he was going to use it, dammit—so he hadn’t been outside all day. He was surprised at the difference from the day before.
The street was eerily empty. It was well past sunset on day three of the blackout now, and the few people out looked unshowered and sour. Most of the generators were out of gas or heavily conserving it. There were no more charcoal grills and burgers. The beer was gone.
The party was over.
Jesse noticed a lot of the cars were gone, too. Odd.
The gas station convenience store around the block was closed, the windows were barred, and the place was empty—except for the old man who owned the place. He sat in a metal folding chair in front of the door, half in, half out of the moonlight, a shotgun balanced on his knees.
Jesse did a double take. A car blared its horn and screeched to a stop as Jesse swerved into the street. It was a cop car. The policeman in the driver seat met Jesse’s gaze for an instant, looked at the man with the shotgun, and peeled off. Jesse caught a glimpse of a woman and two kids clutching each other in the back seat.
Jesse pedaled faster. He knew this was still a rough neighborhood, and there were desperate people around. Everybody knew that. But there was a guy openly wielding a firearm on what was usually a busy corner, and the police didn’t care about this?
Nobody did. Nobody was around to care. All the other local corner stores were closed, along with the restaurants. All the gas stations too. Jesse peeked through the bars of one whose owner felt much less of a need to defend his property—none at all in fact—and caught his breath.
The shelves were bare. Every single one. Jesse tried the knob and was surprised to find the door unlocked. He stepped inside.
A warm breeze blew in through the open door, catching a sheet of paper on the floor. Jesse stooped to pick it up.
Door is unlocked. Take what you want, but don’t break the windows.
God bless and be safe, the Celentanos
Jesse had been to this store several times before and met the owners. Tony and Anette Celentano were friendly and warm. Level-headed. They’d run the place for thirty years. It was their livelihood, and they wouldn’t have abandoned it lightly. Despite the warmth of the evening, a chill flitted down Jesse’s spine. He backed out onto the sidewalk and retrieved his bike, suddenly uneasy.
What had he missed?
When he finally reached the big Wegmans on East Avenue, Jesse realized where all the cars had gone.
The parking lot was mobbed, and the streets were gridlocked for several blocks. Almost all the buildings were dark. Men and women were pushing overflowing shopping carts to cars trapped in the middle of the street blocks away from the store, nervously looking over their shoulders all the way. People were shouting and honking. The attached gas station looked like a parking lot.
Not for the first time, Jesse was glad he had a bike. He wove through the gridlocked traffic and stashed his bike at a rack outside the store. He hurried inside—and stopped cold.
The store was being ransacked. There were few employees at the registers, and those that were sat ignored at their stations, looking lost. A young woman Jesse knew from his block yanked a pack of water bottles away from a sobbing girl no older than twelve.
A man in a tattered overcoat immediately snatched the water from the woman. Two men in business suits slugged him from behind, tearing the bottles out of his grip as he collapsed.
The girl approached the men in tears, holding out her hands. They bulled into the crowd without even looking at her.
Jesse turned and ran.
He unlocked his bike and raced back into the gridlocked traffic, leaving the gas can at the rack. There was no point in bringing it. Whatever had happened, he was too late for water, let alone gas.
He had to warn Caz.