The Final Day
By William R. Forstchen
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2016 William R. Forstchen
All rights reserved.
DAY 920 SINCE "THE DAY"
"Do you remember the opening line of that book by Charles Dickens, 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times'?"
John Matherson whispered the famous line with hands wrapped around a warm mug filled with, of all things, coffee — real coffee. He looked over at his friend Forrest Burnett, who had arrived bearing the precious gift. Where it had been looted from John had learned never to ask.
Forrest's crooked face, twisted up by his old Afghan wound, left eye socket covered with a patch that certainly gave him a pirate look, smiled in reply.
"Wasn't that from the movie where the guy gets his head cut off by the French mob at the end?" Forrest replied.
John chuckled. "Yeah, something like that."
"That guy was crazy, stepping in to take his friend's place at the guillotine, and to top it off, the guy who gets rescued escapes with the girl. Never did like that movie. Why mention it?"
John sighed, standing up and walking over to the window of his office to look out.
The first snow of late autumn had arrived early this year, blanketing the Montreat College campus with half a foot or more. Old-timers prognosticating over woolly caterpillars and nut-gathering squirrels had predicted this was going to be a tough one, and this early November snow appeared to be the first proof.
Before the Day, a first snow, for John, was a time of relaxation and happy memories. Classes were usually canceled, forewarned by the Weather Channel on the Internet. He would have stocked in extra firewood, and it would be a long day of reading by the fire, Jennifer and Elizabeth outside playing, coming in soaking wet for some hot chocolate, and later in the day board games like Clue or Monopoly. If the power went out, so what? It added to the cozy feel, at least for the first few days, camping out by the fireplace and watching the woods fill up with snow.
Before the Day ...
Jennifer is dead. His eldest daughter, Elizabeth, all of nineteen years old, was a mother with a two-year-old son and had finally taken a further step away and moved out of the house in Montreat. She had married Seth Robinson — the son of his old neighbor and close friend Lee — and was living with her new husband, and they were already expecting a child.
How that as well had changed after the Day. Only a few years back, the line had become that twenty-five was the new eighteen. Most kids were expected to go to college, get a degree, start their first job on the career ladder, date for a while, at last find the right partner, settle down, and around twenty-eight to thirty finally start a family. It was again like the world at the time of the Civil War — to marry at sixteen, seventeen. An unmarried girl at twenty-one was seen as already becoming an old maid.
No longer, and the historian in John read it as something that was primal, that after a tribe, a city, an entire country had lost so many lives in a war, the paradigm shifted to marrying young and starting families young — the so-called baby boom of the late '40s and '50s a recent example.
At the other end of this age spectrum, Jen — dear old Jen, mother-in-law of his first marriage to Mary — was gone. Perhaps in a different time, her life might have gone on for another five, even ten to fifteen years. But gone now as well were all the hospitals and medications that extended life, and thus something primal occurred with the elderly. Once they had seen too much tragedy, the will to live for so many was simply extinguished.
She had quietly slipped away in August. He had seen it far too often after the Day — the elderly one day calmly saying that they had experienced enough of life with all its vicissitudes and it was time to leave. He found her one evening sitting "alone" out on the sunporch, happily talking with her husband, young Jennifer, and her daughter — his wife, Mary, who had died long before the Day. She was talking to ghostly presences. He stood silent, eavesdropping as she talked and laughed softly to replies that were silent, at least to his ears.
Makala had slipped up to his side, listened as well for a moment with tears streaming down her face. Makala then guided him to the far end of the house, telling him to leave her be, that, as a nurse, she had often seen such, a clear sign that the beloved who had already crossed over were gathering to help in the final journey.
Jen insisted upon going to sleep that evening not in her own bed but out on the sunporch that looked out over young Jennifer's grave. They found her there in the morning, as if just gently asleep.
They buried her next to Jennifer. Yet another thread that connected John to a former life severed that day.
Even his old familiar office was gone, burned out in the fight with Fredericks back in the spring. It was decided to move what was left up to the Montreat campus and set up a new town office in the basement of Gaither Hall, a logical decision after it had served as the backup command post during that fight. It had been suggested to actually move it into the now-empty office of the college president, but John could not concur.
That office complex held for him a deep symbolic significance. When a special meeting involving representatives from across the ever-expanding "State of Carolina" took place, he would unlock that room for use. Centered on the office wall opposite the desk of the college president was the famed painting of George Washington kneeling in prayer at Valley Forge. It was a reminder of his friend Dan Hunt, who once occupied that room and died in the first year after the start of the war.
His own office downstairs in the basement of Gaither was an easy walk from his home and just down the slope from the college was the new "factory," christened "the Dreamworks." Within the walls of what had once been Anderson Auditorium, full-scale production was under way, assembling new electrical generators complete with wirework for drawing out copper wire for the generators and the stringing of power lines.
The electrical light that illuminated his office regularly flickered as power fluctuated up and down; the system was, after all, jury-rigged, very much a learn-as-you-go process.
The snow was picking up again, swirling around the small campus commons below Gaither, the tattered American flag that had flown during the air battle with Fredericks's Apache choppers standing out stiff in the northeasterly blow.
Watching such moments with the first snow of autumn falling had once indeed been the best of times, and he tried to not let melancholy take hold. He was actually drinking real coffee, the room was illuminated by an actual electric lightbulb, and the woodstove that students had installed in the room was radiating a pleasant heat the way only a wood-fired stove could.
"Why so depressed, John?" Forrest asked.
John heard a match striking and looked over his shoulder and saw Forrest leaning back in his chair and of all things actually lighting a cigarette. Merciful God, how he now longed for one as well, but the promise to his dying daughter and the potential explosion from Makala if she ever detected the scent on his breath was enough to restrain him, even though he did step closer and inhale the drifting smoke.
"Just the snowfall triggering a lot of memories this morning," John replied, settling back into his office chair, his gaze still lingering on the snow dancing on the wind. The sound of laughter echoed, and he caught a glimpse of a couple of his students sliding down the slope on a makeshift sled. Kids, long ago hardened by war and backbreaking labor to repair the damage of the spring battles to Gaither Hall before the onset of winter, were taking a break and again being kids. Their unit commander, Kevin Malady, would soon be out with a shout for them to get back to work, but for the moment, he was glad to see them enjoying themselves.
"Yeah, same here," Forrest said, gaze drifting off as he absently reached over with his one hand to scratch the stump of his missing arm.
"Feeling it again?" John asked.
"Ghost limb, they call it," Forrest said with a chuckle. "Yeah, it feels like it's still there and itchy as hell. Memories of snow for me get all screwed up by this." He motioned toward the missing limb with his good hand and then up to the eye patch.
"I loved to hunt as a kid; we always got a lot more snow over on the north side of Mount Mitchell than you did here. Easy to track deer, fox, bear. Friends and I would even camp out in it, get a deer, and then just stay out in the woods for days living off the venison and some potatoes and corn we packed along." He smiled wistfully. "And more than a few mason jars of shine and a bit of homegrown weed as well. A lot better than sitting in a damn boring history class in school, and given the way the world is now, a better education for our futures as well."
"For someone who apparently hated history classes, you sure know a lot about it," John said with a smile.
"Oh yeah, you were once a history professor. What good did that do you when it came to surviving in this mess?"
"It helps at times, Forrest."
"Okay, I guess it did when it came to running things and getting that 'Declaration,' as you folks call it, written. Lot of good that will do, though, if the BBC reports are true."
"Gave me the idea for how to face off against the Posse."
"You mean you used Hannibal's plan for the Battle of Cannae?"
John smiled at that and nodded. "Seems you know more history than you let on, Forrest. Often the mark of a good leader, which you sure as hell were and still are."
"And it should have told me not to volunteer for that extra tour of duty in Afghanistan. The way it was being fought by the time I shipped there, it had turned into another Vietnam. Build laagers, hunker down, can't shoot even when shot at, and the bad guys own the rest of the countryside while we wandered around like fools trying to win 'hearts and minds.'"
Forrest shifted his gaze to the storm outside as he took one final drag clear down to the filter and let the cigarette burn out. He stood up and went to the window, pulled the flimsy curtain back, looked out, and sighed.
"When I copped all of this in Afghanistan it was a day like this one." He motioned again to the eye patch and the missing arm. "It was a freeze-your-ass-off day. Still haunted by the memory of all that pink frozen slush where the rest of my squad lay, blown apart, the crunching sound of footfalls on snow as the bastards who ambushed us came in to make sure we were all dead and loot our weapons and gear. That's my memory of snow now."
John was silent. It was the most detail his friend, who but six months back had been an enemy who had damn near killed him, had yet said about the day he was torn apart in a war all but forgotten now.
Several minutes passed as they silently sipped their contraband coffee, a gift Forrest would show up with occasionally with a clear "don't ask, don't tell" understanding between them. Forrest lit another Dunhill, smoked it halfway down, and then pinched the flame out, sticking what was left into his breast pocket.
"To what do I owe the honor of your visit today?" John finally asked, for it was a very long trek over the mountains, requiring several gallons of precious gas for Forrest's Polaris six-wheeler.
"You've heard the BBC reports about Roanoke being pulled in with the government up in Bluemont?"
"Yeah, I was about to suggest the state council getting together here this weekend to talk it over. It is only prudent to expect we might be next on their list."
"I expected an immediate response after the way we trashed their ANR unit back in the spring, and then nothing. But I think something has got to be stirring by this point."
"Why I said, 'Best of times, worst of times,'" John replied, watching as the last wisps of smoke from Forrest's cigarette coiled toward the ceiling and then disappeared.
"'Best of times, worst of times,'" and this time it was Forrest. "I was hoping for a winter of peace after so much crap these last few years."
"You think it will go bad?"
"If you expect shit to happen, John, you'll never be surprised when it does."
"Thanks for that cogent piece of advice."
"The price of a good cup of coffee and the offer of a cigarette. Anyhow, beyond bearing potential bad news, I thought I'd hang around here for a few days. With the storm, it'd be a good time to teach some of your kids winter survival stuff."
"Good idea. What made you think of it?"
"Because before it's done, I think they'll be fighting a winter campaign, my friend. Up in the mountains of Afghanistan, it was colder than Valley Forge, the Bulge, even the Chosin Reservoir in Korea. The Afghans understood it; more than a few out there with me did not. I don't want to see that again."
"You think it will come to that?"
John did not reply. There were far too many other worries at the moment. The harvest was barely adequate to see his rapidly expanding community through the winter, especially with this early onset of autumn snow when there should have still been time to gather in additional forage. Two years ago, his worries extended only as far as Montreat, Black Mountain, and Swannanoa, but in the exuberant days after the defeat of the forces from the government at Bluemont, dozens of other communities had allied in, as far south as Flat Rock and Saluda, north to the Tennessee border, east to the outskirts of Hickory, nearly sixty thousand people in all. A tragic number when it was realized that more than a half million had once lived in the same region.
The city dwellers who had survived in the ruins of Asheville were of course welcomed, but few came in with any kind of resources, having lived hand to mouth on what could be scavenged from that once upscale new age–oriented community. It was the backwoods communities like Marion, even Morganton, with groups surviving like the one led by Forrest who joined with a quid pro quo of skills and even access to food that really counted in what all were now calling "the State of Carolina."
Forrest was usually not the talkative type, and John remained silent. Something else was up with this man, and John waited him out.
"Someone came into my camp yesterday," Forrest finally offered. "I think you should come back with me and meet him."
"Who is he, and why?"
"Some of my people found him wandering on Interstate 26. Poor bastard is pretty far gone — several ribs broken, bad frostbite, and coming down with pneumonia. He got jumped by some marauders on the road and took a severe beating. Chances are he'll be dead in a few days, so we decided he should stay put and you come to him."
John did not reply. Forrest was not given to extreme reactions; months earlier, he had come into Black Mountain, leading nearly fifty of his community, after they were hit by an air attack from Fredericks's Apaches. The man had been gut shot and kept refusing treatment until those with him were treated first. If he judged their refugee to be too sick to travel, John wouldn't question the decision.
"Who is he?"
"Says he's a major with the regular army. Claimed he served alongside you years ago. Name of Quentin Reynolds. That he was with the army that took Roanoke."
"Quentin?" John whispered. The name struck somewhere, but if they had served together, that was close on to a couple of decades ago.
"Claims he was an adjutant to a General Bob Scales who's in charge up there."
"Bob Scales?" And with that, John sat bolt upright. It was Bob whom he had been speaking to at the Pentagon when the EMP hit. It was Bob who had been his mentor during his army career and who had arranged through the good ole boy network his teaching position at Montreat when John left the military to nurse Mary through her final months in the town where she had grown up. "Bob is alive?"
"He didn't say that — just that he served with him."
"Still, I got to talk with him," John said excitedly. He looked back out the window; the storm was picking up. "Think we can make it now if we left today?"
"If it's like this down here, I wouldn't want to venture crossing over Craggy Gap and the Mount Mitchell range with night setting in. It was really blowing in as I came over this morning. Best let it settle down first."
"Damn it." John sighed. "This Quentin, think he'll make it?"
"Can't say, to be frank. Just had a gut sense I should come over and tell you. Anyhow, who is this Bob Scales?" (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Final Day by William R. Forstchen. Copyright © 2016 William R. Forstchen. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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