Seeding Hope Among the Ashes
04: A Capital in Ruins
Copyright© 2016 by Vincent Berg
“Hey girls, it’s great finally hearing from you!” David’s voice revealed just how relieved he was. Debbie and Natalie traveled together, in separate cars, until they’d hit the outskirts of the city where they needed to travel in different directions. Once there, they finally checked in with home, hoping they could speak a little freer than they could with others around.
“Yeah, sorry for not checking in sooner, but we sort of had our hands full.”
“That’s what I figured.”
“Man, I don’t know how you ever walked into that first hospital. Those smells are atrocious!” Natalie complained.
David laughed. “I forgot to mention, I use Vicks VapoRub. You just smear it under your nose so you get a constant vapor entering the sinuses. It won’t kill the smell, but it counters it pretty effectively. That’s what coroners use.”
“Thanks for the suggestion. It would have been helpful knowing that beforehand!”
“Speaking of helpful advice, you never warned us what curing someone would entail,” Natalie said, speaking loudly enough to be heard over the microphone Debbie held.
David laughed. “Someone fell hopelessly in love with you, huh?”
“Not just one person, one each.”
“And mine was a girl who’d wasn’t even bisexual,” Natalie clarified.
David laughed at the familiar tale. “Our little treatment is a little overwhelming. But realistically, if I’d warned you, would you have believed it?”
Debbie signed. “No, I guess not.”
“I can see what you had to put up with each of us, though,” Natalie added.
“Still, it’s a mixed curse. After you go through that yourself, you feel pretty close to them as well, so it doesn’t take much to make a full commitment.” David took a moment before continuing. “So, how far did things get?”
“Not far,” Debbie hurried to answer. “We didn’t want to deal with the complications, and since we were leaving right away, we didn’t want to rush our first time.”
“Uh... ,” Natalie hedged.
“Natalie!” Debbie squealed. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“When? We left first thing in the morning and everyone was there to see us off. As it was, he kept pushing and I just figured ‘why not?’.”
“Care to expand on Natalie’s explanation?” David prompted, not sounding overly surprised.
“Frankly, given what we’re facing, I stand a good chance of either being killed or raped. I have no desire for my first time to be an assault or to die without having tried sex at least once in my life.”
“Actually, you’re more likely to be killed. No one would dare rape you, as it’s a guaranteed death penalty. Guys might get carried away, but the Great Death is a terrible way to die and everyone is very aware just how horrendous it is.”
“Thanks, that’s encouraging,” Natalie teased.
“So, if you don’t mind my asking, how was your first time? Do you wish you’d waited?”
“It wasn’t what you’d dreamed of?” David pressed, anticipating what was bothering her.
Natalie took a second before responding. “It wasn’t bad, but he was so attentive!”
“Adoration can be pretty intimidating,” David acknowledged.
“He quoted poetry, promised his undying love and kept asking me how I was doing,” Natalie objected, her voice rising at each additional outrage.
“Some people would consider those good things,” Debbie reminded her.
“I was only looking for someone to hold my hand and for it not to be a horrid experience, but instead I found myself wishing I was somewhere else. He was hardly willing to touch me, afraid I’d shatter.”
“It’s hard dealing with that kind of response. When Flora climbed into the shower with me, I wanted nothing more than to climb over the shower door and out the window. When Ellen revealed she’d arranged the whole thing, I felt betrayed and violated.”
“But you came to love her, just like the others?” Debbie prompted with a pleading note in her voice.
“Of course, but it takes time to wrap your mind around that sort of devotion. These people stop seeing you as an actual human being; they start thinking of you as a demigod. I hate to switch to the pedantic, but did you use protection?”
“Don’t we need to be repopulating the world?” Debbie interjected.
“Not right away. Right now, your first responsibility is spreading the treatment around so we’re not all personally responsible for saving all of humanity. Getting pregnant would not only potentially endanger your lives, it would limit how much you can accomplish. There’s plenty of time to repopulate the world, but right now you’re much too valuable to risk getting pregnant accidentally.”
Natalie sighed. “Yeah, I noted the large amounts of condoms you supplied us with, but when Monique first treated me, she gave me one of those three-month injections, so I’m protected.”
“That won’t protect you from STDs,” Debbie reminded her, sounding like a mother hen.
Natalie laughed. “The chances of us being killed in any of a thousand different ways in the next several months makes worrying about Chlamydia seem like a minor concern.”
“So are you both ready for the next step in your journey?” David asked, wanting to get away from prying in the girls’ personal lives. He’d only pushed it as far as he did because he could tell that Natalie needed to get it off her chest, and this was likely the only time she’d have to discuss it openly.
There was a delay before either one responded. Finally Natalie jumped in. “I’m ready, I guess, but more than a little nervous. At least Debbie has the option of rescuing women. Where I’m heading, I’ll be dealing with a bunch of men.”
“Don’t forget, there are plenty of women there as well.”
“I know, but there’s likely to be more ... conflicts.”
“They’re people without hope, just like anywhere else. But if there’s anyone left, they’ve got specific skills we’ll require. But the area isn’t all men, and there’s frankly no telling who’s left. Keep an open mind and watch your step. Anyway, good luck with it. You’ll need it.”
“Well, at least now I know what to expect,” Natalie concluded.
“That’s more than I can claim,” Debbie lamented.
“Man, we’re way behind schedule. Who would have thought the roads would be such a mess?”
Alice had to drive onto the embankment, nudging a vehicle aside to move around another obstruction. “Mattie, given the size and congestion of a major city, it’s assured millions of people fleeing would be traumatic, especially once the government stopped people entering or leaving before the great die-off.”
“That makes sense,” Mattie conceded, glancing out at the abandoned vehicles littering Highway 66 as they approached the Potomac River. “But it doesn’t explain the traffic if the roadway was closed or was literally ripped apart.” Lassie, whom Mattie was petting, was unconcerned with such things. Lassie had trouble sticking her head out the window. Apparently the smells of the plague were too much to deal with when travelling by car. She still insisted on trying, but would shudder, curl her lip and retreat inside and lay in the back instead.
“The President was desperate to maintain control, despite having such a flimsy grasp on power. As a result, the Feds tried to cut themselves off so no one could make it into the city to protest.”
“Yeah, a fat lot of good it did them when everyone up and died over the next couple weeks.” Mattie was amazed this many empty houses, cars, apartment buildings and businesses remained with no sign of another living person. The utter severity of the plagues was horrifyingly evident.
“As important as moving quickly is, it’s beyond our control,” Alice assured her. “You can’t let yourself get crazy about things you can’t affect.”
“Maybe, but don’t forget, for each week we’re behind schedule, there’s another whole city that doesn’t get rescued. And for each city we don’t visit, there are fewer immune individuals to treat those with the plagues. It’s a cascading effect. If we’re late by only five days, it could mean the death of hundreds. If we can’t cross the country fast enough, we could lose entire sections of the country.”
“Hey, what did I say about not making yourself crazy? Who eventually lives and dies isn’t in our hands. We’ll do the best we can. We know what the stakes are, so none of us are dawdling. But if we spend all of our time worrying, we won’t be productive and we’ll lose focus. How much longer do you think we’ll be if we rush so much we can’t recover after treating someone? No matter how delayed we are, it’s better we make it to the next stop than stopping dead in our tracks.”
“So, do you recognize anything yet?” Alice asked, hoping to change the topic. She recognized they were several days behind schedule, but continuing to harp on it wouldn’t help and would only make them more desperate, which is when you make mistakes. They’d had to backtrack multiple times, going around the major highways onto small residential streets, and those were often obstructed with downed trees or collapsed buildings. Their scheduled rendezvous was long past. They’d broadcast when and where they’d show up without knowing just how difficult the roads were to access. They could have made quicker progress if they’d given up the van for a motorcycle, but the van held all their medical supplies. They simply couldn’t carry the necessary tools for treating people without the hybrid SUV. As it was, the 4-wheel drive was all that got them past many of the obstructions.
“The last time I was here was on a school trip and wasn’t paying attention to geographic features. The sign said that’s the Potomac in front of us.”
“Right, and that’s Roosevelt Island. Just beyond it is Arlington Memorial Bridge which leads directly to the Lincoln Memorial, the National Mall, the White House and the Capital building.”
“That’s fascinating, but why are you driving past the bridge then?” Mattie had almost forgotten Alice had lived in the suburbs nearby, and knew her way around town. Staring out the window again, she took in the fact the Potomac was filled with death, rather than the normal picturesque tourist site. Between the surface covered with dead fish and the occasional body floating by—and littering the sides of the road—it was a thoroughly depressing scene.
“I wanted to check on something first. As I’m sure you’ve noted, the city services were abandoned a long time before the die-off. It’s apparent the government collapsed since they were unable to clean up the dead. The entire city looks like a dead zone. I’m interested in figuring out what happened. I’ve got a pretty good idea and just want to confirm it since we’re so close.”
“Whatever,” Mattie responded, closing her eyes as she turned away from the scenes of death floating by on the passing river. Instead she studied the still green Arlington Cemetery, despite the multiple brown and fallen pines littering the site. Yet another sign the plagues had affected more than humans and fish. “It’s clear from the number of fires and bullet-ridden bodies that there was major rioting here.”
“Ah, but that’s the key. President Daniels and his CIA stooge, General Pendril, were losing control. But discovering how the conflict ended will tell us a lot about the current state of the city.”
“Ever the detailed planner.” Mattie turned away from the signs of rampant devastation and regarded the young woman little older than her. “You approach death like a chess board, trying to figure out which calculated move to make rather than reacting to what’s staring you in the face.”
“I’ve seen enough death and destruction in the last several weeks, including a few gun fights. I’d rather know what I’m getting into than blindly stumbling into a dangerous situation. What’s more, I’m trying to prepare you for dangerous encounters in the future. By paying attention to things around you, you’ll be better prepared. The best protection against an attack is to know it’s coming so you’re prepared. For instance, you’ll notice there are a lot of burned out vehicles, bodies and signs of skirmishes for such a scenic tourist area.”
“You’re right, there are more blockades, although most of them have been shoved aside.” Alice’s observations made Mattie more inquisitive. There, in front of them, stood an overturned bus, several ravaged army troop carriers, and even a burned out tank surrounded by civilian, military and police bodies. These had little to do with the plagues which ultimately resolved the conflicts the combatants were so intent on winning.
“What’s ahead that’s so vital if the center of government is behind us? I mean, isn’t this the direction to Alexandria?”
In response, Alice simply pointed to a road sign they were approaching.
“Oh, you think the fight ended at the Pentagon?”
“That was the source of President Daniels’ power.” Alice glanced at Mattie, though her eyes continued scanning everything around her like a seasoned warrior. “He had no political or public mandate beyond being thrown into office after the death of everyone else, so General Pendril propped him up with the military backing of the Pentagon. Clearly, the locals weren’t impressed that Daniels and Pendril spent all their resources clinging to power rather than dealing with the crisis here and across the rest of the country.”
“Yeah, I can see it now. Only ... it doesn’t look like it’s in very good shape,” Mattie commented as she leaned forward, peering at the blackened building ahead.
They stopped talking, taking in what they could observe as Alice weaved around the many burned out, overturned wrecks, turning into the Pentagon parking lot. Alice wasn’t concerned with the gate. Not only was there no electricity to operate it, but it had been ripped apart long ago, the guard-house apparently leveled by a semi.
The front of the military command and control facility was littered with bodies while the walls of the structure were blackened by fire and partially dismantled. Most windows were broken, but it hadn’t been a simple process with the reinforced windows installed after 9-11. Instead it looked like they’d been hammered repeatedly until the entire frame popped out, and then the opening was used to pull down the nearby walls. This wasn’t just a short intense bombardment, this was a full on offensive. However, there were more than the few bodies which hadn’t been properly disposed of. Instead they included the bodies of senior military officials in full military uniform, their chests full of shining medals, strung up from nearby trees, dangling off the sides of the building and tied to the sides of trucks. Since the insects and microbes which typically disposed of carcasses were decimated, the bodies hadn’t degraded enough to fall from their perches, instead looking as dark and weathered as the burned out remnants of their previous place of employment.
“I’m guessing someone wasn’t fond of the military,” Mattie ventured.
Alice opened the door and climbed out of the vehicle. Lassie, having perked up as soon as they pulled to a stop, leapt out and ran back and forth, sniffing the air before advancing in any single direction. “No, after everything was said and done, they picked the wrong horse and paid for their inability to stand up against bad decisions. They signed their own death warrants when they supported a power-mad minor official and opened fire on their own citizens without valid justification.”
“Do you think the people who did this were ... imitating David, or did they just happen to duplicate his style of making a public statement?”
“I don’t think they could pick up his broadcasts at the time, and even if they could, he rarely detailed what he did in those cases. He left them as silent testaments to what people should expect if they hurt those he cared about. I think these people were just that pissed.”
“Why are some corpses mummified while others are more decomposed?” Mattie asked as she poked one hanging general with a stick.
“I think it’s because some were healthy while others were sick. Those who were already infected with the plagues didn’t decompose much. Those who weren’t were fed on by insects carrying the plague from the other corpses, causing their decomposition to halt at a later stage. In short, cross contamination killed everything, just at different points.”
Lassie, ignoring their analysis, ran from one corpse to the other in descending order of infection, proving the wisdom of Alice’s words.
Ignoring the corpses, Alice headed into the five-sided building since the security entrance had long ago been breached. The entrance was pockmarked with bullet holes, the floor stained black with long dried bloodstains. The interior was a mess. It seemed the last holdouts fought savagely and the victors, when they’d finally overwhelmed them, had behaved even more viciously. Junior officers were dismembered, various dried out body parts lying strewn across the floor. Some had what they assumed were their private parts shoved into their mouths, though they’d shriveled so much it wasn’t clear exactly what they were.
The pockmarked walls showed the gunfire was heavier firing out than it was incoming. The protestors apparently found shields sufficient to render the military’s high-powered assault rifles ineffective, or perhaps the military gave up after witnessing what they’d done. The outer offices were torn asunder and exposed to the elements. The inner offices had been set afire and ransacked. Their occupants similarly dismembered and their heads left out in the hallways while their limbs and various organs were scattered about their offices.
Mattie, not having as strong a stomach as Alice, headed back outside, wondering where the survivors disappeared to. But Alice’s curiosity was stronger than Mattie’s stomach, as Alice spent some time investigating the remains, relying on Lassie to discover which offices had been used to store those suffering from the plagues.
“What were you looking for?” Mattie asked when Alice ventured back outside, not carrying anything they could use.
“I wanted to get a feel for how many weapons the survivors took.” Alice ran her hand through her long locks, staring back at the damaged building as if looking for something neither one could see. “It looks like they spent quite a while taking every available weapon, however, it doesn’t look like they had many stored here. Instead, the Pentagon seems to have been mostly a high-ranking military office complex. I’m guessing the individual weapons were taken to prevent military reinforcements from accessing them, but we’ll need to be cautious as anyone we meet could be much better armed than we are. As you can see, for all the troops who died here, there’s not a weapon to be seen.”
“As if I wasn’t nervous enough as it is,” Mattie grumbled.
Alice and Mattie drove across the Arlington Memorial Bridge where Mattie got a better look at the vast expanse of death steadily flowing downriver. She shuddered as she considered what the oceans must look like, as well as the effect this many dead and diseased animals had on the Earth’s water supplies. Lassie, seeing the water, once again hung her head out the window but grimaced and shook her head at the scents assaulting her. The girls didn’t know whether the plague smell was so bad—after all, dogs aren’t exactly known for avoiding unpleasant scents—or whether she simply had negative associations with the smell.
The roads along the Mall were clearer, but there were still signs of conflict as the roads were torn up by the tread marks of heavy army vehicles. Luckily, though, aside from hundreds of dead birds, squirrels and rats littering the central mall, there weren’t many human cadavers.
“Where are you headed?” Mattie asked when Alice turned off the National Mall at 15th Street. They’d broadcast they’d meet anyone in the city at the Washington Memorial. The large empty lawn surrounding the Memorial would have made finding and observing people easier, but it also presented an increased ambush threat with little chance to hide or escape if anything went wrong.
Alice glanced at Mattie as she swerved around wrecked cars and a dead horse lying in the middle of the road. “Since we’re already several day’s late, I figured I’d check out something else I’m curious about first.”
Once she turned onto 15th it was clear where she was headed, and the abandoned and overturned roadblocks and burned out wrecks of nearby police cars on the way illustrated why she was curious. Clearly the hostility at the Pentagon carried to the White House as well.
“Why do you think everyone was so angry?” Mattie wondered aloud. “I mean, so much happens which people don’t respond to, you’d think people would be more concerned with the death surrounding them that they wouldn’t want to add to it.”
“I think it’s more complicated,” Alice suggested. “The government was attempting to restrict people’s access in order to prop up an ineffective leader. They halted any response to the crisis, focusing on curtailing protests instead. After people lost everyone in their lives, they had a lot of anger at the unfairness of it. That frustration gets directed externally. When you make yourself a symbol of dysfunction and artificially imposed obstruction, it’s easy to see why people with nothing left to live for would take it upon themselves to act out.”
“Yeah, I guess so.” As they passed the Ellipse off the White House’s South Lawn, Mattie observed more overturned police cars, burned out tanks, scenes of long-lost battles to the surrounding structures and again, more dead but undecaying bodies. “Still, seeing what was coming, it seems pointless. Any one of those people could have held the key to survival. Throwing those lives away was just ... pointless in the long run. After all, everyone would be dead weeks later anyway.”
Alice made a number of turns, showing she’d thought about where she was going ahead of time. This wasn’t a hasty last-minute decision. She turned at the Treasury building, then again on the East Executive Avenue. Gaining access to the White House lawn was surprisingly easy. The multiple barricades were swept aside or overturned and they drove directly to the White House entrance unimpeded.
Grabbing her M16, Alice climbed out. Mattie grabbed hers as Lassie leapt from the vehicle and trotted after Alice. She caught up to them at the edge of the Rose Garden. Wondering what Alice was staring at so intently, Mattie noticed three graves in the middle of the garden, marked with nothing more than a single wooden cross.
Alice nodded towards the makeshift graves while shouldering her rifle. “I think that answers the question of what happened to President Daniels.”
“He and his family died from the Great Death? But did they die before or after everyone attacked the Pentagon?”
“I’m guessing from the lack of physical damage, they died before everything fell apart. Again, I suspect people rose up after the deaths began accumulating and felt they had nothing to lose. Essentially it was suicide by protest. I suspect once President Daniels died, it was a tipping point. After that, the last remnants of the government probably collapsed.”
“Are you sure it’s him? And if it was, is that his family buried with him?”
“I’ve got no clue,” Alice admitted, turning away. “There aren’t any names, but who else would they bury in the Rose Garden? And if there’s no monument, chances are there wasn’t anyone left to perform a formal burial.”
Mattie surveyed the graves one more time before running after her friend, who was already mounting the White House steps with Lassie by her side. The large edifice hadn’t weathered the breakdown of society well. There were chunks of marble missing from the building, though most of the damage from the initial meteor shower had been swept aside. The rose garden wasn’t in very good shape, as most of the flowers had also fallen victim to the plagues. “So where are you going then? You’ve figured out what happened.”
“Hell, we’re here and we’re not likely to ever see it again. Call me curious.”
“Oh,” was Mattie’s only response. Alice opened the large ornate doors. Apparently no one locked them either.
It was apparent as they entered that the end of their world hadn’t affected the impressive structure. However, they both noted many of the historic paintings had been removed, likely placed in storage to preserve them from the elements once the staff realized they could no longer maintain them. They were probably placed somewhere in the basement, hopefully locked. Otherwise there’d never be any accounting for what would happen to them.
“It’s certainly still nice,” Mattie ventured. “How’d you like to live in the White House?”
“It isn’t worth it.” Alice made a wide sweeping gesture, taking in their surroundings. “This place is huge and would cost a fortune to heat during the coming winter. They could afford to maintain it because they had dozens of states contributing taxes to cover it. Anyone trying to move in as a permanent home would end up buried here as well.”
Mattie glanced around, looking guilty about violating sacred grounds. “So are you ready to go now that we know it’s still intact?”
“In a second, I’m trying to see if there are any bodies which would explain what finally happened.”
Mattie stopped protesting, trailing the older girl as she marched the halls of the White House with a sense of purpose. Lassie paused by each door, sniffing the air to determine whether there were any dead inside. Alice glanced in each of the richly appointed bedrooms, although much of their decorations, blankets and drapes were gone. They rounded a corner, still examining rooms, when a voice called out.
“Who the ‘ell?”
Glancing up, Mattie saw a well-dressed man with ruffled unkempt hair staring at them. As she watched—too shocked to respond—he lifted a rifle and pointed it down the hall at them. Lassie began a low growl.
“Get down!” Alice yelled, body-blocking Mattie and knocking her to the floor as a couple shots rang out. They were followed by the sound of the bullet striking the marble walls, showering them with marble fragments. Lassie yelped. Mattie couldn’t see what was happening as she rolled to the side, but she guessed Alice knocked her off-balance as well. Twisting her head, she saw Alice bounced off of her, rolling towards the far wall, remaining low.
“Drop it before I leave your entrails as a permanent historic display,” Alice shouted.
Lassie scrambled to her feet, her nails scratching the marble floor as she bolted after the man who’d fired at them, blocking Alice’s shot. The man hesitated and then turned and ran, Lassie racing after him.
“Lassie!” Alice yelled, jumping to her feet with her M16 at the ready.
“We’re going after him?” Mattie asked, scrambling up as well.
Alice took off at a run, not glancing back as she tried to catch Lassie, who was now looking back, eager to give chase but knowing a warning when she heard one. “Obviously.”
“Why didn’t you shoot him?” Mattie inquired as she drew her own rifle.
“Heel!” Alice insisted before continuing on, Lassie sticking close by her feet. “We don’t know whether he actually fired at us,” Alice replied as she rounded a corner, not slowing to shelter herself. “The shot hit the wall above our heads. I’m pretty sure it was a warning shot.”
“You hope!” Mattie responded, rounding the corner more cautiously.
“We don’t mean you any harm, but we can’t allow you to take pot shots at us,” Alice yelled out, well ahead of Mattie. There wasn’t a reply and the sounds of footsteps echoed off the marble walls, making it difficult to locate where they originated.
Mattie followed Alice and Lassie—who was barking again—as they chased their attacker around another couple of corners. They trailed him as he ran down the long corridor leading between the White House and the West Wing. As he neared the end, Alice called Lassie back and waved Mattie off as she slowed, allowing the shooter to make good his escape.
“You’re letting him get away?”
Alice took a second to get enough breath to answer. “Yeah, there’s no sense forcing him to shoot us. I doubt he’s had any actual combat experience, but I’d rather not have to kill him. He’ll keep running, probably hiding in any of dozens of rooms. Hopefully he’ll stay under cover until we disappear.”
“What about your curiosity?” Mattie asked as Alice strode past holding her M16 at the ready.
“It’s not worth killing someone over. Let’s get out of here.”
Mattie followed the older girl, whose military bearing added more authority to her than her young age. Once outside, Mattie ran to the relative safety of their SUV. Lassie stuck by Alice who refused to rush, turning and glancing at the available windows as she walked backwards, checking for potential shooters.
Seeing none, she strolled to the driver’s side, let Lassie in the back, climbed in, started the vehicle and slowly drove away, as if nothing particular had occurred.
“How about we skip the next guided tour?” Mattie suggested as she settled into her seat, taking a deep calming breath.
Returning to their designated meeting place, the girls drove over the no longer carefully manicured lawns to the base of the Washington Monument. Although they weren’t far from the White House, Alice doubted the person who’d shot at them would seek them out. Even if he did, they’d see him approaching. What bothered Mattie, though, was the fact they were sitting targets for anyone lying in wait with a rifle and a decent aim.
Getting out of their SUV, which was painted with a bright red medical cross within a white circle, they glanced around. The grass was about mid-calf, but while it had grown, it wasn’t consistent. The grass was patchy, weeds grew in abundance and wide patches were completely bare. What’s more, if examined closely, you could see which grasses and weeds were more susceptible to the Great Death. Lassie, though, was ever attentive, even if she was distracted smelling and investigating everything. Alice, knowing how dangerous spreading her infectious bodily fluids were, trained her to poop on command. So Alice used her collapsible shovel to dig a hole for her to do her business in and then bury it deeply enough so it wouldn’t contaminate any nearby plants.
“You know, you can be scary mean when you’re getting all ‘military gangster’, Mattie commented.
Alice shrugged, looking forlorn. “Sorry. I know I get out of hand. I was always quiet, never speaking up for myself. Now when I have to say something, I can be a bit blunt. When I was in school, I always stood off by myself. Even when everyone came to the house after the meteor storm; Amy and I hung around because neither one of us liked to talk. The other girls, they were into gossiping and talking about ... feelings.” Alice said the word as if sucking on a lemon. Mattie giggled.
“You know, you don’t have to be either a girlie-girl or a man’s man like your father. You do have other options.”
“Please! My father a ‘man’s man’? He could barely make it up the hill behind our house and back. And he couldn’t lift much at all.”
“Still, he stuck with it until he finished whatever he started, which says more about being a man than being able to bench press three-hundred pounds.”
“That’s what I’m saying,” Alice countered. “When I was around my Dad, he never expected things from me. He didn’t want to talk about my feelings or ask about my relationship with my mother. He let me wander around the property on my own. But when we had a task, he emphasized how important doing your best was. He never insisted I do something I couldn’t, but he was so proud whenever I accomplished something on my own. I guess I took that to heart. I took pride in mastering whatever he taught me. If I could do that while being my own person, free from the expectation of others, then I was as happy as a clam. At home, my mother wanted all the details on my father and what we did together. What I did at school, what the other girls said, what boys I liked. Out in the country, those little details didn’t matter. Only doing my best did.”
Mattie frowned, imitating her friend. “Still, you don’t have to be so scary.”
“Oh, yeah? If I didn’t chase after the guy who shot us, what would you have done? Should we abandon Lassie so he could shoot her? Or should I chase after them, trying to talk some sense into him. You’ll notice; no one got injured doing things my way. I prefer not to think of myself as ‘scary’, but as being prepared for anything.”
“Still, cracking a smile occasionally wouldn’t kill you,” Mattie argued, sticking her tongue out.
“You never know. It just might. Fortunately, I’ve never tested it out. Otherwise I might not be here now!” Despite her claims, Alice broke into a smile as she and her friend laughed.
They sat there smiling at each other, before Mattie changed the topic. “You know, for as much as I complain, I’ve always preferred Mulan over Ariel. Of all the Disney Princesses, she and Merida were the only ones who didn’t depend on men to rescue them.”
“That’s because your father influenced you more than you’ll admit. He was a survivalist. He prepared for the end long before it ever came. Only it didn’t help him survive it. You’re just like me. You’re still hoping to win your father’s approval, even when it’s too late.”
“Maybe so. Plus, my brothers got all my father’s attention for being macho. To compete, I did too. Only ... I was too small to be terribly tough.”
“Terribly Tough: the new brand name for the newest Disney Princess, the Mighty Mattie!” That sent them into spasms of laughter that left them rolling on the ground.
“Still, next time you want me to learn something, at least crack a smile. My father always frowned whenever he told me what a sissy I was. It doesn’t help my self-image. A little encouragement goes a long ways.”
“I’m sorry. When I’m telling people how to avoid death, explaining the repercussions of making the wrong decision in the heat of battle, or detailing how to avoid infection, I’m not feeling terribly friendly.”
“But you are,” Mattie insisted. “You drill in those details because you are like your father. He’s the man he is, not because he’s so tough, but because he cares so deeply for people. You do what you do because you love your father, but also because you love everyone you help, just like he does.”
“Maybe,” Alice conceded, staring out into the distance. Silence descended as each girl studied the area surrounding them: Alice the obstacles in the distance and Mattie the unmanicured lawn.
“I wonder whether there are any dandelions left?” Mattie asked out of the blue.
“I mean, with everything else that died, it would be nice if a few dandelions survived.” She turned and looked over the wide expanse of lawn. “Dandelions are known for always surviving. Plus, they’re so useful. You can make tea, coffee, wine or even beer out of them. They’re edible and they’re good for herbal medicine.”
“Yeah, and what did they accomplish which pills can’t?” Alice countered, sitting on the ground, resting her back against the cold monument.
“Well, I can’t remember exactly,” Mattie confessed, “but I think they’re supposed to help your internal organs recover.”
“That would be useful,” Alice admitted, scanning the distance for any signs of life, either current or from the past few days which would indicate someone was waiting for them. “But since it’s already so cold, I’m sure the flowers have long ago dropped off. Without the identifying flowers or thistles, we’d be hard pressed to pick out any dandelions out of a field this big. Trying to dig up roots in the middle of winter if you didn’t know where they are would be difficult.”
“Still, it would be encouraging if the plucky little weed survived.” Mattie swept her hand over the nearby weeds, trying to determine whether she could identify any of the surviving plants. “Once all the pills are exhausted or expire, we’ll need to start making our own herbal remedies. Hopefully there will be enough useful plants to take care of normal everyday ailments.”
Several hours passed, during which the two girls entertained themselves. They tossed balls for Lassie, who appreciated their effort. Mattie also tried the entrance to the memorial edifice, but unlike the front door of the White House, it was locked. “Figures,” she complained, “they protect the hunk of rock but not the symbol of the country.”
“It’s just as well,” Alice observed, staring up at the impressive structure riddled with damage by the meteor storm. “You’d get to the top, hear gunfire and run all the way down, arriving too exhausted to assist.”
Ignoring Alice’s laughter, Mattie leaned back, resting her head against the cold marble. “I’m bored.”
“Yeah, waiting is the pits. I’d much rather march into a live firefight than wait around.”
“Know any good jokes?”
“Nope, only bad ones.”
“Okay, let’s have a bad joke contest. Bad jokes, not dirty or nasty ones,” Mattie clarified.
“Sounds fair. I’ll go first. Why did the squirrel fall out of the tree?”
“Because he was nuts?”
“No, because he was dead,” Alice deadpanned, trying to contain her giggling.
“More likely you shot him in the forehead. OK, my turn. Knock knock.”
“Not the squirrel. He’s dead.”
“Not as dead as your sense of humor,” Alice teased, the sound of their laughter rolling over the distance as the two girls pounded the ground.