Friday, January 6, 2017

Dark Winter Chapter 18

That’s right, Carrie.  Nobody has seen gas lines like this since the oil crisis of the 1970s. Half the pumps at this Citco are shut down for lack of fuel.  There are other gas stations around town that simply don’t have any to sell at all.

(Cut to a gas station attendant shaking his head), “I just don’t know.   We haven’t had a shipment in for two days now.   I just don’t know.”

Eighteen state governments today announced emergency gas rationing would be put in place by the end of the week.  The hold up is that no one can quite figure out how to implement it, since there hasn’t been gas rationing in this country since WWII.

WLS-Channel Seven News Chicago

Philip Scheer had been having second thoughts about this whole Marine Corps business.  It sounded good when he was talking to Gunny Carlstrom, Phil thought to himself.  It had sounded really exciting, then.  It probably was really exciting, he admitted to himself as he walked into the empty parking lot of the Cherryland Mall in Traverse City. For a start, it would get him out of Traverse City.

Traverse City, Michigan, is odd in about every way available to it. It was small town that was under the impression that it was a big one.  Mostly because it was the biggest one for hundreds of miles in any given direction.  But it only had a population of about fifteen thousand and there was almost no middle class at all.  Everyone there was either rich or broke, Phil reflected for the thousandth time.  If you didn’t live in a trailer, you lived in a house that cost, at minimum, two hundred and fifty large.  

If your folks had money - if they lived on Old Mission Peninsula - then you went to Traverse City Central High School.  If you lived in a trailer park in Grawn, you went to Traverse City West. Phil Scheer lived in Grawn.  Although his folks had an actual house, mean value of about one hundred fifty thousand.  Making the Scheer family, so far as Phil could tell, the entire middle class of Traverse City.  

They owned and operated Scheer Meats, a butcher shop that had been in the family for, literally, one hundred years - as of this year.  The city had made a minor fuss about that anniversary.  Pictures were taken for the Record Eagle.   Dad, his brother, Kyle, who already worked there full time, and Phil.  All of them had been  in brand new white aprons for the occasion.  His superstar brother, Roy, had come down from MSU to be there.

Scheer Meats was one of about three business that didn’t need to close up after Labor Day.

The circle of life for those who went to Traverse City West was;  Graduate.  Then attend NMC (formerly North Western Community College) for one year. Drop out (planning to go back to school...someday). Work a seasonal job in the summer. Then go on unemployment during the winter, during which you would get drunk and snowmobile a lot.  

Kids from Traverse City never moved back in with their parents because they never left their parents’ home in the first place.  Eventually, however, your girlfriend would get careless with her birth control and the great circle of life in Grand Traverse County would continue.

If you were really ambitious, you would open a fudge shop for tourists.

Traverse City ran on tourism and the cherry crop.  Neither of which could Phil stand in the least.

Cherry festival was how he had ended up in the Marine Corps Delayed Entry Program in the first place.  Leanne had dumped him the week before.  He had spent the following days in the kind of  deep blue funk only a seventeen year old boy knows.  Kyle and Roy had finally dragged him out of bed and down to the lakeshore for the Fourth of July. It did kinda cheer him up.  Cherry Fest was one gigantic carnival, given cache by professionally photographed articles that appeared regularly in “Midwest Living.”  The smell of cotton candy and frying funnel cakes can lift anyone out of the dumps.

Less appealing was the “entertainment.”  Ariana Grande was the big name act that year.  Since none of them were twelve year old girls, he and his brothers had drifted away from the stage.  They strolled around some of the more out of the way areas of Cherry Fest and wandered amongst lower rent booths erected in one of the parking lots.  

“YOU!” an enormous voice from an enormous guy nearly made Phil shit himself.  The enormous guy was pointing in his direction and he had a uniform on, khaki shirt and blue pants with a red stripe on the seam. He was standing next to a red pop-up tent with a bunch of marketing junk on a folding table.

Phil had looked around in the suddenly desperate hope that there was someone else behind him.

“What’d I do?” His voice cracked embarrassingly on the “I”.

“YOU are taking my highly motivating Marine Corps Chin-up Challenge,” the man had bellowed with joyful authority in a sing-song voice.  The huge guy hooked his thumb at a pull bar.

“One pull up will earn you a bumper sticker andy my utter contempt!”

That shocked Philip Scheer.  He had been praised by every authority figure he had ever known in his life for accomplishing...anything.

“Five will get you a keychain and only slight disgust that you dare call yourself a man.”

Call yourself a man? Was it even legal for somebody to say something like that? Phil had wondered.

“Ten will get you this stylish black and white baseball cap and only mildly shameful knowledge that you are slightly below average.”

Kyle had pounded him on the shoulder. “That’s you bro.”

Roy chanted, “Do it! Do it!”

“Fifteen gets you your choice of tee shirt and my grudging acceptance that you are probably about the best your shameful generation can produce!”

There were a couple of trim girls in shorts and bikini tops from TC Central that had stopped to giggle at him.  Phil felt his face flush.

“Twenty will WIN you all of the above, a big ‘ooo-rah’ from me, a ‘my hero!’ from these girls,” the guy pointed at his instant accomplices “and you get to find out what your mission in life will be!”

“Do it! Do it!” Both of his brothers were chanting now.   Kyle weighed in about two hundred eighty pounds, so it sure as hell wasn’t going to be him.  And Roy, let’s face it, was Roy.

Phil ran track and he had been doing weights for the unofficial religion of Traverse City, namely, high school football. So this wasn’t out of the ballpark for him.

Phil had gone up to the bar, steadfastly refusing to look at the girls.  Then he peeled his shirt off.  There was more giggling.   A lot more giggling.  He jumped up and grabbed the bar, “One!” Phil called out.

“Doesn’t count,” Gunny Carlstrom had shaken his head.  “It’s called a ‘chin-up’ not a ‘nose-up’ Get. Your. Chin. Ov-er the bar.  That’s about having excruciating standards.”

Finally, after about twenty-six pull ups, his biceps burning as if acid was being pumped through them, and his fingers were aching like the claws of an owl that had flown off with a hog, he  finally heard the big Marine bellow in triumph, “That. Is. TWEN-TY!”

Phil dropped off the bar. Kyle and Roy hugged him around the shoulders, laughing.  

“OOO-RAH!” Gunny Carlstrom’s voice managed the impressive feat of drowning out Ariana Grande’s warbling.  He suddenly pointed at the girls.  “You two! Give the man, a big, ‘My Hero!’”

The one girl buried her head in her hands and laughed in embarrassment; she couldn’t do it.  The other, whose name turned out to be Jessika,  giggled, then bounced up to him.  Clasped her hands together in a way that had some very pleasing side effects on her bikini top, opened her eyes as wide as they could go, batted them twice and breathed in a perfect Princess Daphne voice, “my he-e-ro!”

“Now it is time to claim your prizes. And find out about your life’s mission,” Gunny Carlstrom had said.

It was obvious he was a military recruiter.  Phil had known that from the start but he decided to let Gunny Carlstrom make his pitch.  

It had sounded good.  Real good.

Grandpa had been in the Army, so he thought it was a great idea.  Couldn’t be prouder. Dad was more than a little reluctant.  He wanted Phil to go to college. He wasn’t bad at football.  The coach would probably take him in just to keep Roy happy.  

His Mom had cried.  

And cried.

Then cried some more, just to make her feelings on the matter plain.  

She had eventually signed the parental consent, after asking for the eightieth time, “Are you sure about this? Really, really sure?”

Phil’s Mom still wasn’t good with it.  Jessika, after a couple of fun months, had left for MSU in September.  They had said they would keep dating.  But she was a year older and he was still in high school.  She hadn’t actually broken up with him, she had just sort of faded away.

Everybody he knew at TC West was talking about their college plans and he didn’t have any.  Then big Gunny Carlstrom was replaced by that short black guy, MacKay.  He didn’t have anything against blacks, hell, the only black kid in town was his best friend Montre.  

Phil got out of his 99’ Outback and started trudging through the snow towards the Marine Corps Recruiting Substation.

A blanket of thick, heavy snow suddenly came down out of a black sky, like the world’s biggest down pillow had just been blasted with a shotgun.

Snow was the other thing he hated about Traverse City.  It’s close proximity to the big lake created a malicious micro climate in the area that dumped tons of the God-awful white stuff on them every year.  You could easily spot the natives versus the tourists just by what they drove.  If it was serious all wheel drive vehicle, they lived in TC year round.

He was starting to come around to his parents point of view.  There was a lot to be said about college.  All the guidance counselors said so. Everyone said so.

The only one person still pushing him hard to go Marine was his brother Roy.  Roy had taken him aside when he was first starting to have second thoughts about it.

“Bro, you know there is nothing for you here,” Roy had said.  “I mean nothing.  The butcher shop is now in Kyle’s name, being held in trust just for Kyle.”

That had surprised him a little.  “Only Kyle?  Why didn’t he tell me?”

“Because he didn’t have to.  You know how it works.  He’s the oldest, so he gets stuck with it,” Roy said. “He can’t get out of here.  You can get out of here. So, go!”

He walked through the glass door of the Recruiting Sub Station.

Mom was right, though, college could do that, too.  Phil thought as he stomped the snow off his boots.

Maybe he didn’t have to quit all the way.  After the DEP meeting tonight he’d ask Sergeant MacKay about the Reserves.

He walked down the hall and went into the first door on the left.

“Hey, there he is!” Sergeant MacKay said with a big smile that felt fake.

“Looks like we got everybody for once,” The other Sergeant, the one named Naisbett, added.

Montre was there too.  They exchanged traded two handed cool guy handshakes.

Montre was not only a friend, he’d helped talk him into joining the Marine Corps, too. If there was anybody who wanted out of TC more than Phil, it was the only black kid in a red neck high school.

He didn’t know the rest of the pool too well.  He’d seen them at other pool meetings.  There were a couple of new guys and couple of old guys that were gone to bootcamp.  They were from all over Grand Traverse Bay. Some of them were from East Jordan, one was from Ellsworth.  Three of them were from North Port High school, that was fifty percent of the males graduating from that tiny school this year.  The rest were from TC Central or West.  They weren’t really friends at all.  Certainly they were no ‘band of brothers.’

“Gentle-men,” Sergeant Naisbett used his Sergeant’s voice, “come to the Position of Attention.”

They did as they had been taught.  It was a rough approximation of the POA.  Their future Drill Instructors would doubtless be brought to tears by it. There would be a few questions about General Orders.  Followed by pushups and pullups when they got the answers wrong. Then there would be “fun” activities.  Sometimes they were interesting, but for the most part Phil may as well have been back in Boy Scouts.

Sergeant Naisbett spoke again but in a much different tone of voice., “Gentlemen, you have doubtless heard a lot Sudden Onset Dementia Syndrome.  Commonly called SOD.”

Okaaaay, this was a little different, Scheer thought.

“The infection rate for this disease has turned out to be far worse than any of the models projected.”  Naisbett continued in a worrying tone of voice.

Was this going to be some kind of role playing game? Scheer wondered.  What would you do if such and such?  If so, then cool...for once.

“As you were made aware at the time of your enlistment, you were signing up for an eight year obligation.  For most of you that will be four years active service and four years in the inactive Ready Reserve,”  Naisbitt helpfully reminded them.  “Your time in the Delayed Entry Program is, or rather was, to count as time being served in the Inactive Ready Reserve.”

Was?  Scheer was suddenly more than a little worried about where this was going. In fact it was, ‘I think I just swallowed a stone,’ kind of worried.

“However,” he continued in what Scheer was now viewing as a voice of menace.  “A state of national emergency has now been declared and therefore under article 20 you have all been activated.”

Montre broke the POA, “what does that mean?”

“I think it means, we just joined the Marine Corps,” Philip answered.

Sergeant MacKay was suddenly on top of them in a heartbeat, his short body somehow producing a basso profundo, “YOU ARE AT THE POSITION OF ATTENTION! LOCK IT THE HELL UP,  RECRUIT!”

“I’ve got the latest numbers on our so-called Shippers,” John told General Sertorio.  He offered her a piece of paper with the relevant information.

She glanced at the paper without taking it out of his hand.  “Is it accurate?”


“Stop bothering me with it.  You are the CEO, John.  I’m really just on the board of directors.”

“Those guys get lied to.”

“True,” Sertorio granted.  “Are you lying to me?”


“Then that’s one problem less.”

John clenched his burning sleep deprived eyes shut for just a second to rub them.  The demon, Morpheus, was upon him instantly, offering all manner of temptation.

“I just came from Garrett’s room,” she said. “There is a little bit of good news.”

John swallowed hard and nodded for her to continue.  He had been thieving away what time he could for his middle son, even if the boy didn’t open his eyes when he read to him.  Garrett had found some rather old pulp boys’ adventures that took place on the Illinois/Michigan canal in the 1930s.  The Adventures of Jerry Todd and Poppy Ott.  A lot of the old canal towns in Illinois had started turning themselves into tourist stops.  He had been planning on taking Garrett on a tour of them next summer, when his tour of duty here was up.  Just the two of them.  Middle kids tend to feel ignored.

“He’s still...asleep but the fever is broken.  There is no record of that happening with any of the Zombies before.  So I choose to take that as a positive sign,”  Garrett’s Grandmother said with a bleak smile.

John didn’t say anything, but he sent a silent, genuine prayer of thanks.

“I’ll be down to see him, soon.”

She will still be there,” General Sertorio said.  Not really warning John.  Just stating what was, to her, a very unpleasant fact.

John gave a dry and humorless chuckle.  “I thought I was the one who wasn’t supposed to forgive her.  Charlotte ran out on me, remember?

“And on me as well.  When she left you to whore herself out that dickless wonder, Wheaton, she threw away every value I tried to instill in her, or at least get her to display in public.”  Dee took a breath.  “She chose to do that.  She did it knowing she was throwing me away.  She chose that, too!  She chose to stop being my daughter.  I shall respect her choice.”

“You are hard woman, Dee.”

“Because I have values that I absolutely will not compromise?”  She shrugged, “then fine.  I’m a hard woman.  We didn’t used to be all that hard to find in America.”

Dee cocked her head.  “I’m not saying disowning her didn’t hurt and I’m not saying it did.  I’m saying it’s my business, John.  No one else's.”

“She and her...”  Dee stopped for a moment startled at herself, then she continued.  “She was always a difficult child.  Raising her on my own after her father’s...disappearance, was not easy.  Although having him out her life was the best thing that could have happened to her.  I have no, illusions about her, John.  I’m rather shocked that you still do.”  She glared steadily at John.

John couldn't meet her eyes.  “I need someone to look after Garrett right now,” he said.  “Also, she is organizing our dependent’s families.  She was always expert at that,” he tried to add coldly.

“Oh, John,” Dee sighed, “you perfect little fool.”

“Dee,” he said flatly, “my business, not yours.”

General Sertorio shrugged her acquiescence.  Attempting to stop men from doing things that were incredibly stupid was impossible, she had been trying to do that all of her professional life.   

She sighed again and then straightened herself, “Speaking of my business,  I think it’s time to fill you on what that is.”

“About damn time, General,” John said firmly.  “Subordinates shouldn’t be kept in the dark about desired endstates.  What, may I ask, is ours?”

She looked at him with sleepy eyes and adopted her lecturing voice.  “To rebuild civilization once the ashes have cooled.”  She waited for John to give a her a proper wide eyed gulp before continuing.  “My original timetable is now out of the window;  Dark Winter, like the study it was named for, is being accelerated out of control.”

“Big surprise.  Battle plans. Contact. Enemy,” John said airily, if not quite in a daze.  He knew that that was the real deal.  The government of the United States of America as is today could not survive this crisis.  It was going to crash. It was going to burn.  There was no way they could stop that.  All kingdoms are built upon feet of clay.

“Hmmm.  We haven’t even been in contact with the real enemy yet,” She said mysteriously.  “Anyway.  When we first looked at the results of Dark Winter, we waited for our political masters to give us some kind of direction.  At the time they were Republicans, so we were perhaps over-optimistic.

“When it became painfully obvious that Plan A for them was to bury their heads in the sand and pray disaster never arrived on their watch, myself and a few of the other brighter sparks who were colonels at the time began to come up with detailed contingency plans.  

“We camouflaged those rather effectively by making them wartime insurgent exercise studies.  The war was handy for us, in that regard.  The more detailed parts of Project Seldon, a name you will find on no document, official or unofficial, were classified Top Secret (Compartmented Information).   We didn’t dedicate much in the way of resources except for some stuff that was being tested and then DRMO’d.  Hence, your Springfield rifles, satellite field phone,  and few other things.”

“Like the Ponce?”  John asked, with a scowl.  He had been on that tub once.  Once was enough.

“That was supposed to be Admiral Bill Fletcher’s.  I was only keeping an eye on it for him, but I appear to have Bill is now down with SOD.”

“Too bad, he was a good guy.”  John had known of Admiral Fletcher from his time on a Med-float.

We were supposed to be heading down to the Tennessee redoubt with everything I could strip from this very fine agricultural college.  The grad students, the more useful STEM professors, all the equipment that wasn’t nailed down and then pry up the nails on stuff that was.  I don’t know what Bill was going to be doing with the Ponce.  We were pretty compartmentalized, for obvious reasons. Still, that was some good luck for us.  She has enough refurbished M-14s aboard to equip all of our recruits.  I don’t know what Bill was planning do with them but they are a gift horse whose mouth I will not examine.  M-4s with their 5.56 ammo would not have been my first choice for dealing with Zombies.”

“And my recruits?”  

“Were never in my plans at all.”

“But they are now.”

“Yes,” she said. She motioned him over to a wall map of Michigan. “Things have gone too far, too fast.  The governors of Indiana and Ohio have both cut off travel out of Michigan, citing President Van Djik’s recommendation. In defiance of Secretary of State O’Hara’s orders.”

“That would be one long ass thunder run.”

“Given that gas prices were fifty dollars a gallon this morning....”

“Holy shit!”

“We probably couldn’t get there unless we humped our own fuel.  And I’m not positive I can scrounge enough. Even if I could, we would have to fight tooth and nail to hang on to it, all the way down to Tennessee.

“What about the Ponce’s fuel bunkers?”

“That’s what I was thinking but as you already said, that is a long-ass Mogadishu Mile. And frankly, my planning was built around a more pedestrian biological disaster. Weaponized Small Pox.  Neo-Bubonic plague.  That sort of thing.  No, the original plan is shot to hell. I have something else in mind now. “

“And that would be?” He asked.

She walked to across the room beckoning John to follow.  Her finger stabbed at a point in Lake Michigan.  “Beaver Island.”

John examined the map with professional interest.  Then picked up his iPad and googled it.  “Let’s see.  History, French Trappers. Mormon polygamy colony?  Colony wiped out.”

“Don’t worry.  They weren’t LDS,” Sertorio said absently.

“I wasn’t,” John replied. “Thirteen miles long. Six wide at its widest.  Arable land. This is getting promising.”

“It has a decent enough natural harbor,” Sertorio said.  “Also an airfield.  Hotel space that will be vacant during the winter. So billeting won’t be an issue.

“Even has a golf course,” John added.

“A pity I didn’t bring my clubs,” Sertorio said wistfully. “ And I don’t golf.”

John nodded.  It was moving fast but at least they had a plan.  “Okay, Beaver Island it is then.”

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