FICTION, JULY 2008
by Susan Pomeroy
[At last, the next installment in "Out of the Fire," a piece of fiction begun
in August of 2008, long before the fires that ravaged Southern
California last autumn and the new ones that have broken out all over California already this summer.]
Joshua and I looked at each other, then towards Ben, whose face was a pale mark against the night's shadows.
"We're going to survive," said Joshua. "We're going to find a place—maybe here, maybe somewhere else—that's isolated enough that we can hole up until spring. Lay low. Hope to God it doesn't burn where we are, and be ready to move fast to somewhere else if it does."
"We don't have any food," said Ben.
I could feel Joshua sigh and I knew what he was going to say next, and what it cost him to utter those words to his son.
"We'll take what we need," he said.
"You mean...steal it, Dad," Ben said slowly.
"We'll take it from wherever it's not being used. Yes. Steal it. The world as we know it is falling apart, Ben. I'm not going to let you or your mother or sister starve to death for a principle. We'll take what we have to, as long as no one else needs it right now, and if there's ever an opportunity, we'll pay it back."
Ben nodded, solemnly.
In the morning, after an hour or two more of fitful sleep, Joshua and I called Ben and woke up Katia, Marie, and Raymie, still asleep in the van.
"First off, inventory," said Josh. We spread everything out on the old blue tarp from the back of the van. Two full liter bottles of water, and several half-empty ones, which the girls carefully consolidated. Half of block of Tillamook cheese I'd brought last night. Six apples. Two small packages of roasted peanuts. Eight sticks of sugarless gum. A half-squished melted candy bar from Ben's school backpack. In the emergency duffle were a dozen protein bars and eight foil packages of freeze-dried beef stroganoff.
We stood there looking at our sad little pile of provisions. I felt so grateful that we had them—and so stupid for not having more, for never having believed a day would come when we were on our own. Katia looked up and must have seen something in my face.
"Don't worry, Mom," she said, squeezing my hand. I squeezed back.
"It looks like two days worth of food, at a stretch," I said.
"Right," said Raymie, looking serious.
I continued. "So what do you say we start with breakfast, the most perishable, cheese and apples, and while we're eating we can all plan what to do next."
"All of us plan?" asked Katia. I looked at Josh. He knew what I meant.
"All of us," he said.
We sat in the shade of the trees munching slices of apple and cheese.
"Mom," said Katia, "what about the camp, Aretipa, just up the road? There might be food there, or stuff we can use, or we could just stay there."
No one said anything for a minute. All I could see was that shiny lock and chain on the gate. What if someone was already there, someone who wouldn't want company? Or worse, had what my grandma used to call a mean streak?
"You're absolutely right, Katia," answered Joshua. "It's too dangerous to go back to town for supplies yet, and we're going to need shelter, as well as food. But first,
let's see what else we've got. Everything, every little thing, whether you think it's useful or not. "
We put the rest of the food in a bag, for sharing later.
"For now, said Joshua, this is all we have to eat... so everyone is on their honor not to help themselves, no matter how hungry we get. We'll all decide together what and when to eat. OK? We all nodded but that wasn't enough for him.
"All right, Pinchbug?"
Katia laughed to hear her old nickname.
"All right, Cookie Monster," she grinned.
we stood looking at everything else we owned. Three ancient road maps. A small wrench. Two screwdrivers. A tire gauge. A scuffed flashlight with no battery, and another one that still had enough juice to provide a strong beam. Seven automotive flares. Various sweaters and jackets. One bungie cord. Three worn blankets. Joshua's hatchet. A tire-changing kit including tire iron and jack. Two sets of jumper cables. A crushed half-box of tissues. Joshua's all-in-one belt tool. A banged-up Swiss army knife from Ben. The kids' three backpacks, and their contents: five pens, a couple of half-blank composition books, a library copy of Ben Hur, a plane geometry textbook, seventeen dollars in crumpled bills, three hair ties and a folding hairbrush, another fat textbook called "World History Today," and last but not least, one butane lighter that Ben sheepishly pulled out.
We also had six empty plastic water bottles, and the emergency duffle. I extracted things from the duffle bag one by one.
Four small reflective tarps in plastic pockets. A small first aid kit and a spare inhaler for Ben's asthma. A box of 24 tampons. A portable water filter. A box of wooden kitchen matches. A folding picnic knife. And a small wind-up multi-band radio that Ben reached for and immediately began fiddling with.
"Raymie?" She shrugged helplessly. Her tiny backpack contained her wallet, three tubes of lipstick, a keychain flashlight, a tiny ancient bottle of sunscreen, mascara, crumpled tissues, and a fat tattered paperback novel by Nora Roberts.
"OK, guys," said Joshua. "We need almost everything. Food, shelter, utensils—"
"Coffee!" said Raymie.
"Candy!" said Katia.
"—tools, weapons..." Joshua trailed off.
"Weapons?" I was aghast.
"People aren't always nice," he said, looking first me, then each of the kids in the eye. "They might want what we have. They might want us, want us to do something or go somewhere we don't want to. I don't want us to be scared, but we should be watchful. Prepared."
Raymie nodded. "OK!" she said. "So we hang out here for a few days, go to town, or wherever, steal the stuff we need.... Then what?"
"Then it gets hard," said Joshua.
To be continued...