They said once, the next war will be televised or something like that. They were wrong. The next war was tweeted, liked, pinned and instagrammed.
Hostilities were announced on social media, intentionally by the political class no doubt, who viewed military engagements with distaste, but like Hollywood, knew war sold better than social programs. Or so they thought.
We sat home and watched our cable monopolies like obscene peeping toms never knowing when to look away. We were shocked as pieces of our vaunted military fell from the skies or sank into the ocean, and as we debated online about what to do, the conflict ended as soon as it started.
As we know now, we realized in the early 21st century, our nation, propped up on borrowed money and instant credit, could no longer afford to keep fighting a never ending war much like we could in our grandparent's time. Instead, we went to war with equipment and men paid for with loans and future forecast revenue.
And when those loans came due and new money dried up we did not have sufficient resources left nor the will to sacrifice any further, never mind, to fund the current social needs of the civilian population. Half hearted, short term taxes, driven more by ideology and resentment and lauded to "reduce our deficits ten percent over the next decade" did nothing to stop the bleeding. It was too late.
But don't worry, the rest of the world went down the financial toilet, as misery loves company, so it's not like there's an occupying army on our shores or anything. The world is home, broke and broken, witnessing everything they once knew now falling apart and unraveling.
The war was quick. Most military action was over in the first thirty days, with all hostilities ceasing in three months. Millions died, were maimed, lost and forgotten. That part was easy. What happened next, was not.
A brief global war decimated the fragile economies of the world which led to their collapse. Three months after the first shot was fired, the global economy was dead, most currencies worthless and a good part of the world kicked back to where we started.
The government, at all levels, retreated. And left behind by the tide on the beach were each of us. Some alone, some in groups and each on his own.
And that is how our story begins, the day after that tomorrow.
Mark Devlin watched as the Quitman's SUV drove down the suburban street, turned right and left their neighborhood, Dunbar Heights, for good. The Quitmans were going to their "lake house" and had no plans on returning. The plan, according to David Quitman, was to wait out there in the country for things to return to normal. In the meantime, would Devlin mind watching their house and keeping the swimming pool clean?
"Is there electricity on at your lakehouse, David?"
"Probably not, but we have plenty of candles, lanterns and flashlights. It will be like a camping trip."
"What about running water?"
"Hadn't thought about that. Well, it's not running here, at least not regularly, so having the lake out back will make a big difference."
"What about food? Or gas for your car?"
"We packed everything in the house and when we get closer to the lakehouse, we will do what we always do and stop off at the market and stock up. As for gas, I am sure there is some at the marina and besides, we aren't planning on driving anywhere until this mess sorts itself out."
"David, the Kroger next door was closed three days ago, why would they have any food at the tiny supermarket near your lakehouse?"
"Because, it's now how things work out there. I am sure there is plenty of food in the smaller towns because there are fewer people". Quitman said as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. "We'll keep an eye out for other stores along the way as well. You worry too much, Devlin.".
Devlin helped the Quitmans pack their truck and even lent them some rope for the stuff on the roof as they hadn't any. After they drove away, Devlin waited fifteen minutes before going over to the Quitman's house and inside.
Of course, they left all of their furniture and fixtures. Devlin noted the light bulbs in the fixtures and checked the television remote controls for batteries (which he removed and pocketed). In the kitchen, he found Karen Quitman had left most of the spices and condiments in the cabinets taking instead all of the packaged and canned food (what they had). However, she neglected the canisters on the counter which contained sugar, flour and salt.
In each of the closets was plenty of clothing and as Karen and David's kids (college age were hardly kids) were much older than his. The garments and shoes would come in handy down the road. It included several winter coats, gloves, hats and other things that it being spring, Karen and David thought they wouldn't need.
Karen had taken a lot of the linens and towels, but left all of the beds made and the bathrooms stocked. Not only were there clean towels in the racks but soap, shampoo, razors and other things left behind unopened and unused. Devlin had an image of the Quitmans taking travel sized toiletries on their "camping trip" and promptly put the thought out of his mind.
In the garage, Karen's coupe was parked inside, spare keys were on the kitchen counter and when he started the car, the tank showed three quarters full. The gasoline can for the mower was in the corner and while it had a carrying capacity of only one and a half gallons, it was more than half full.
All of David's garden tools and equipment were in their places. He did not have a work bench, but there was a tool box nearly full and left behind. There were several bags of fertilizer, grass seed and lawn food in the corner and more than a dozen emtpy flower pots, all five gallons or larger, stacked in the corner.
Out back, the swimming pool was full and the cover pulled over it. The rest of the carefully manicured yard was flat and clear and measured more than than six hundred square feet of space. Devlin stared at it before checking the far side of the house on the other side of the swimming pool.
As he remembered, there was nearly a full cord of firewood stacked on a metal rack and covered with a couple of blue tarps. There were also three sections of fence stacked up after David replaced a falling section of the fence last month. Devlin made a mental note and then looked over the decorative beds along the rear fence. All were wide and populated by roses and decorative bushes. It would be some work pulling them out, but he knew what he would replace them with.
Going back inside and cutting through the kitchen, David picked up a bag of stale hamburger buns from the bread box and went out the front door, locking it behind him. He went back to his house, but went through the side gate hidden in the bushes between his house and the empty one on the other side instead.
In the backyard, the hens greeted him and scurried out of the way, but hurried back once he opened the stale bag of buns and started tearing them apart and tossing them on the ground. Once empty, Devlin balled up the bag and stuck it in his pocket for another purpose in the future.
Devlin cut around the back of the house went and inside through the rear door and found the house still cool regardless of the late spring temperatures. He had the entire house insulated, caulked and weatherized the year before along with replacing the composite roof. In every room twelve-volt ceiling fans were hung and powered by the sun outside keeping a constant breeze blowing throughout the home.
His four year old was on the floor of the family room coloring. His two oldest had a radio on and were moving through the bands looking for music. There were only three stations operating the last time Devlin checked one of which was operated by the city on the AM band. The only information it gave was what was expected of residents during this trying time and how all were responsible for their neighbors and community. At least the kids still had their i-whatevers for music.
The house was intentionally dark as most windows were either boarded up (facing the front) or covered with heavy drapes to keep artificial light inside. The rooms populated by people had LED lighting for illumination while others were left dark on purpose.
Devlin's wife was hanging socks and underwear to dry in the laundry room in the rear of the house. With the screened window open and the fan going, they dried quickly enough.
Devlin looked out one of his peep holes in the front and watched the neighbor's house across the street. He knew they would be over at some point as soon as their food ran low. He had no problem sharing as he knew having neighbors was becoming a luxury.
The Quitmans were the fourth family on the cul-de-sac to move out in the past month. All had gone to either a second home, like the Quitmans, or had disappeared elsewhere. The home next door belonged to an elderly couple who passed away within a month of each other and whose home had remained vacant for the past six months.
The Paxtons, the Bermans and the Holdens were the last ones left besides Devlin's family. The rest of the neighborhood had similar vacancy rates in the area of town he lived in as far as he could tell. He occasionally saw those that remained, as they scurried in and out of their homes avoiding attention and evading detection.
The front door to the Holden's home opened and Mellisa came outside with her youngest, Cole by her side. She had an empty bowl and walked carefully across the street looking both ways as she did.
Devlin knew what was coming so he quickly went out the backdoor and around front from the other side of the backyard.
"Hey, Mel, how are you doing?" Devlin said before she saw him.
Startled by his appearance, Melissa replied, "Good Mark, I am sorry to bother you, but I was hoping you might have some cereal for Cole. We ran out yesterday and the store is closed and I could borrow some?"
"Sure, but what about you, Bill or the older boys? What are you guys eating?"
"We just had oatmeal for breakfast, but Cole hates it."
"I see. Sure, no problem. Curious what are you guys having for lunch or dinner?"
"I'll put together something. Oh, we'll be fine, Mark. I mean, it's not like the world ended or anything. As soon as the banks and Bill's office reopen, we will be back to normal. The radio said there will be an announcement any day now." Mel said responding to the look on Mark's face.
"OK, I just thought I would ask. The power being off, all the stuff in our fridge went bad and we had to chuck a bunch of stuff out. Hang on and I'll get you some cereal. Does he like Cheerios, Rice Crispies or Fruit Loops? Forget it, I'll grab all three and bring them by."
"You don't have to do that, Mark." replied Mel.
"Really, it's no problem. Besides, the front door is not working and I don't want Cole to come in the back without shoes."
"What's up with the door, Mark? And the windows?" she asked.
"Just taking some precautions. There have been some home invasions and I don't want criminals to think our house is an easy target." said Devlin.
"Well, if you want to bring the cereal over and leave it by the front door, I am sure that will be fine. Thank you." said Mel as she turned away to her home.
Devlin watched Melissa walk back with Cole who immediately started bawling about his cereal and how hungry he was. Devlin went around back, went in the house and picked up a couple of grocery bags. He put the three boxes of cereal inside and added a small box of powdered milk.
Next, he filled the other bag with tomatoes, peppers and a pint of strawberrries from the garden. Finally, he picked up a half dozen eggs that we left over from collecting this morning.
Leaving the house, he went around back again and was about to go out the front fence when Hannah called him.
"Daddy, where are you going?"
"Across the street to the Holdens. You want to come?"
"Sure, I haven't seen them the last few days."
Devlin and his oldest daughter crossed the street and went to the Holden's front door and knocked.
There was some muffled conversation inside and the sound of people moving around. Finally, the front door opened a crack and Mel looked out from behind the door chain.
"Hi Mark. If you want to leave it outside, I'll come and get it."
"No I don't want to do that, Mel. I have the cereal and some other stuff and I don't want to leave it out here. I'd like to come in if I may." said Devlin.
"Mark, the place is a mess. Can you just leave it and come another time?"
"Mel, I don't know what's going on over here, but I am not leaving. Just let me in and stop acting weird."
Mel looked resigned and slowly opened the door. The main room of the house was a mess with clothes and toys scattered everywhere, but what struck Devlin was the smell. It was like every toilet had backed up and run all over the floor. Also, the house was an oven, the heat stifling and the air still and putrid.
Bill Holden came around the corner and looked like a bus had hit him. He had at least a week's growth of beard and was only wearing a dirty t-shrt and shorts.
"Hey Mark. You're making me look like a bum." he said defensively.
"Bill, it's been awhile. How are things?" Mark said as they shook hands.
"Could be better, but it always can be. Have you been called back to work yet?" Bill asked.
"Not a chance. My company locked the doors three weeks ago and cleared everyone out. I don't think they will be reopening ever." replied Devlin.
"Oh. So what you got there?" asked Bill.
"The cereal for Cole plus some other stuff from my garden. The tomatoes are out of control and I hoped you guys would take some. That and some eggs. The chickens eat, poop and make eggs and we can't keep up with the supply." said Devlin.
"Sure, I mean okay. They're clean and everything, right?" Bill replied hesitatingly.
"Cleaner than anything you could get at the store. I'll just bring them in the kitchen."
Inside, the kitchen was a mess. Every cabinet was open and empty. The sink and counters were full of dirty dishes. The trash can was overflowing with empty cans, boxes and wrappers.
"We haven't had time to clean up, I didn't want you to see it." said Mel.
Mel had her eyes down and her arms folded. Bill walked up and put his arm around her. Jason, their oldest son, the same age as Hannah, appeared behind them and looked around at everyone in the room. Then his eyes fixed on the bags in Mark's hands.
"Is that food? What did you bring Mr. Devlin? Can I have something?" he asked.
"Sure, Jason. Why don't we put it over here on the kitchen table and you can get Cole a bowl of cereal and fix yourself one too." said Devlin.
"Mom, this milk is powdered and the water is gone. Do we have to get some more from the Doyle's bird bath." asked Jason.
Devlin looked at Mel and Bill.
"Hannah, will you run over to the house and get a jug of water please? The watchword is California."
"OK, dad." she said.
"Bill, Mel, why don't we go in the living room? Where is Bill, Jr?" asked Devlin.
"Bill! Come on in here." shouted his father.
"Why?" replied the boy.
"Because I said so." said Bill, irritation growing in his voice.
"What is it?" asked Bill, Jr when he entered the room.
"Go in the kitchen and see what your brothers are up to. We grownups have to talk." replied Bill.
"Bill, Mel, what's the deal? The plumbing is backed up in the house because you have been trying to flush the toilets. And you have no water besides what you are taking from a bird bath. Is that why you have the fireplace going? To boil the water?" asked Devlin.
"Yes, but I won't have you looking down or talking down to us, Devlin. I made more money last year than you did and have a nicer car and house. A few eggs and some dirty tomatoes don't make you a better man." said Bill, his anger starting to surface.
"Bill, I don't care about your car or income. You're my neighbors and I want to make sure you and your kids are okay." implored Devlin.
"I can provide for my own family. As soon as Kroger opens..."
"Kroger is closed, Bill. Probably for good."
The door opened and Hannah came in.
"California is beautiful, Dad."
"Great, why don't you bring the water in the kitchen and make some milk for the boy's cereal?"
"How about I show them how and they can do it themselves next time?"
"Even better, doll face."
"Folks, here's the deal. We don't have a lot, but we have enough. I am going to bring over a few more things from the house so all of you have a good meal now and another this afternoon." said Devlin turning to Mel and Bill.
"You guys can put out the fire in the fireplace and cool the house off. I suggest you open the back doors and windows to air the place out. This afternoon, get some buckets and clean out the toilet bowls as best as possible. I know it won't be pretty, but someone's going to get sick unless you do right away. I have extra cleaning supplies if you need anything, let me know."
"So what's in it for you, Devlin?" demanded Bill.
"Three things, Bill. One, you're my neighbors and your health and well being are important to me. Two, there's going to be plenty of physical work which needs to be done for us to get by and I am going to need all five of you to help. Third, I need someone watching my back and you need someone watching yours." replied Devlin.
"I am not working for you or for a handout, Devlin." blurted Bill.
"Bill, I am not asking you to. I am asking you to be the same man you were before this started. Work for your family and do the best you can." said Devlin.
"Hannah, let's get going. And grab the eggs we brought over. We'll cook those over at our house and bring them back when they are ready."
Hannah and Devlin said their goodbyes but didn't wait for an argument and left.
"Jacob ate most of the box of Rice Crispies while I was in the room, Dad."
"I know, they were starving. Most of what they ate came from to go places and fast food. I don't know if Mrs. Holden can even cook or cook very well, Hannah."
Hannah is a smart kid, thought Devlin.