Born and raised in Manhattan, Percy had never seen the inside of a barn. He wasn’t a ‘country boy’ by any means. However, walking into Charlie’s barn, he was fairly certain that this wasn’t how a barn was supposed to look. Machinery was parked inches from each other, tractors, ploughs, shovels and hay bales were stacked up on top of each other along one entire wall. Three makeshift chicken coops were lined side by side against the far barn door.
Wearing the clothes of Charlie and Carrie’s son, Percy thought he looked as out of place as everything else. He swung open the large barn door cautiously and stepped inside. “Charlie?”
From the loft above, Charlie called out, “Just a minute, Stanford. On my way down.” He descended the ladder quickly, having much more agility than a man who looked every day of his sixty-five years. “Carrie sent you in to call me to supper, I s’pect.”
“About thirty minutes, she said.”
They stood in silence for a few minutes. Percy asked Charlie, his tone low, “Charlie, what happened?”
A darkness fell across Charlie’s face. He walked over to one of the hay bales and leaned against it. “When’d you go down? Into Wind Cave, I mean.”
Charlie nodded, but didn’t say anything.
“It was supposed to be a four day expedition,” Percy explained. “Before my PhD.”
A slight smile caught the edge of Charlie’s mouth. “D’you know that Pete Windmere grew up out here?” Charlie motioned towards the fields outside of the barn door. “His old man used to have a farm few miles from here. Back then,” he said and sighed, “he went by the name Peter Wind Hawk. Family name.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Course, he moved out west, changed his name to something so people wouldn’t know his heritage.” He paused. “What a waste.”
“Charlie,” Percy insisted.
Charlie’s sigh was heavy. “On June twenty-second, a nuclear bomb was detonated in the subway in New York, ‘bout three miles from where they hit us on 9/11.”
Percy closed his eyes.
“Thirty seconds later, a second nuke hit less than a quarter mile from the White House.” His face lost all expression and turned gray as the sun had begun to fade from the sky. “By then it was all over the news. Air raid warnings, emergency signals went off.” He shook his head in disgust. “Too goddamned late.”
He turned to Percy and saw the pallor of his face change. “Two more went off a half-hour later. One in Kennedy Space Center, one in Houston.” He pulled a long piece of hay from the bale underneath them. “West Coast got hit worse. Three nukes went off…oh, ‘bout ten minutes later.”
Percy’s voice was barely audible. “Where?”
“LA, San Francisco, and Seattle. We knew, hearing all this on the news, we’d be next. Been telling the folks in Washington for years to get those nukes outta the Dakotas.”
He’d been right. Percy closed his eyes and listened to what had actually happened. The story that, up until now, he’d only been able to speculate about. It was worse, hearing the truth of it confirmed, and he felt nauseated.
“By then, we were all scramblin’. Getting the livestock in, tryin’ to get enough food into the cellar so we could survive if we were next.” He looked at Percy. “Safest place, you know. Underground.”
“Last bombs hit North Dakota at 4:35 on June twenty-second. Blew everything sky
high.” He took a breath and looked at Percy. “’Bout a hundred and fifty miles from where you were.”
Percy’s stomach lurched. He needed air. He stood up, but swayed. Charlie stood up next to him, held him by the arm, and led him out into the South Dakota twilight.
“C’mon, let’s go for a walk.”
He slid an arm around Percy’s shoulder; no small feat considering Charlie wasn’t an inch over 5’9, stocky and muscular. They walked down a path that had been well worn with machinery but was now overgrown. They got to the end of the trail and looked out over the horizon where the sun threatened to leave them in the dark. Percy took a shuddering breath, fell to his knees, and was sick.
Charlie knelt with him and said nothing, then helped him up and kept him from falling again as Percy stumbled backwards. “Take it easy, Stanford. Jus’ take it easy.”
Percy couldn’t stand. He sank down to the ground, the reality of what had occurred in their absence too staggering to contemplate. His entire family. His brothers. His parents. Everyone he knew. He asked the only question on his mind. Oddly enough, it was the same question that everyone in America had asked for the last thirty days.
Charlie actually laughed. A bitter, harsh sounding laugh. “That’s the question, right?”
The sun finally disappeared, leaving them in darkness. Crickets began to sound in the distance and Percy struggled to stand. Charlie reached down for him and helped him up, dusted him off.
“Do we know who…”
“Nope. Some say North Korea, some say it was the same bastards that hit us on 9/11 but nobody knows for sure.” He paused and a sad smile touched his lips. “And the President’s not talkin’.” He chuckled at his own sick attempt at humor.
“And the rest of the county? Any other states hit?”
“By the time the last of the bombs went off, everything stopped. Planes were all going down, airwaves were jammed. It wasn’t just the bombs. Satellites, cell towers, computer mainframes. It was like they knew just how to hit us so that we were blind mice. Damage everywhere. Hundreds of planes crashed that day. Hundreds. Looting, killing. It was like…it was like the entire country just…” Charlie shook his head, not finding the word he needed.
“Yeah, I guess.”
Charlie let out a breath in a whistle. “Well, Stanford, now isn’t much better. Carrie and me, we stay here in Fall River because, well, it’s safe enough. We’ve got one cow left, and some chickens. We know the folks that stayed, and we all help out each other. That, and I’ve got enough guns in my cellar to blow anyone who aims to do us harm to Kingdom Come.”
Percy smiled and they were quiet for a minute. “You don’t have a way of contacting anyone, though? What about satellites, or—”
Charlie laughed out loud. “You think we got a satellite receiver out here, Stanford?”
“We’ve got a short wave radio and a long wave radio in what used to be the post office. It’s enough that we pick up transmissions from time to time. Some make sense, some don’t.”
“What about the President? I mean, who’s running the country?”
They were both quiet for a moment, listening to the chirping of the crickets around them. “Don’t know who the next in line was, don’t know what they’re doin’ to help the country
back on its feet.”
“What about foreign aid? What about all the countries that we helped when they were—”
“Yeah, well, I guess they all got real short memories, cause we haven’t seen or heard of anyone comin’ to the U.S. wantin’ to pay back for our good deeds. Like they say, I guess. No good deed goes unpunished.”
“Is everything gone? Internet, phone reception?”
“We got short distance with phone lines, maybe about fifty miles. Some folks say they can call as far as Nebraska, but that’s about it.” Don’t know if it’s the planes goin’ down that knocked out the lines, but…” his voice trailed off for a moment. “We’ve tried calling our boys in Ohio and the calls just won’t go through. Nobody knows what was hit and what wasn’t, though nothing seems to be workin’. It’s like they’ve got us…”
“Isolated,” Percy finished for him, and looked around them at the desolate fields.
“That’s about it.”
Percy swallowed, caught somewhere between rage and grief. He hung his head.
Charlie motioned towards the house. “They know?”
Charlie let out a breath in a whistle. “Well, shit.”
“I…I have to tell them.”
“You all made it this far, Stanford. Thirty days, you said? Down in Wind Cave?”
Percy nodded. “Yes, sir.”
Charlie laid a weathered, calloused hand on Percy’s back. “You’ll make it the rest of the way.”
Percy’s head hurt. He needed more answers, but for now, he’d absorbed all the information he could take. They turned and headed back towards the house, Charlie’s arm around Percy’s shoulders, leading him back inside to tell the others.