Vaughn slowed his truck to a stop at the end of a long line of cars. Up ahead he could see red flashers and men in black body armor with tinted face shields and M-16s. German shepherds were sniffing at car undercarriages. Vaughn stopped and turned off his engine to save his precious gas. He had to preserve what he could as his ration card was nearly exhausted.
His little blue ration debit card with a blue eagle on the face had arrived in the mail along with instructions on how to replenish it with one’s bank account for a modest transaction fee. The purpose of the ration card, implemented by yet another executive order, was to combat hoarding which was blamed for the tenfold increase in the cost of fuel. Without the card, buying gas was not legal.
Vaughn waited in the checkpoint line for an hour. Brooke grew agitated. Her diaper was soiled and she was hungry and exhausted from being immobilized in her car seat. Vaughn pondered unfastening her and letting her crawl around in the front, but who knew what kind of police response that might illicit. He didn’t want to give them any cause to harass him. He reached down for his backpack and took out a box of powdered milk. He poured a tablespoon’s worth into her sippy cup, topped it off with tap water from a bottle, and shook vigorously. A scum coagulated on the bottom of the cup but this was normal for the ration milk. Brooke hadn’t tasted real milk in two months. She also hadn’t had any fresh fruit for two weeks. Vaughn had not seen any fruit in the grocery store that once brimmed with bananas and oranges and grapes. That cornucopia had been replaced with bins of potatoes, turnips, sour baking apples and sugar beets. What the hell can you make with a sugar beet? Can a human even eat one? There were three bins of them in the produce section.
A soot-belching eighteen-wheeler roared past him. It was painted in the gray, geometric hues of urban camouflage and the blue eagle logo that glared down at him with its sinister, all-seeing eye. The jack-hammering racket of its engine brakes startled Brooke and she began to cry. Vaughn tried to calm her with his pathetic singing of “Muffin Man” which calmed her a bit.
A winter fog swept in and cast an eerie pall while they waited. Slowly, the men in black body armor emerged from the smoky haze, making their way towards Vaughn’s truck. Vaughn was thankful he’d remembered to remove his shotgun as the storm troopers did not look like they would be very tolerant regarding illegal firearms.
Vaughn guessed that the holdup was due to someone having failed an inspection. A car ahead had been directed off the road and onto the shoulder. The driver was pulled out and handcuffed, then shoved into a gray van and spirited away into the mist.
Vaughn turned on the radio. The mainstay for the past several weeks was the news about this or that government edict and how it was going to fix this or that calamity. “We are in this together,” was one common refrain. “Think safety!” was another. “Report any suspicious activity,” was yet another. But this morning there were no news reports, only music. Even the talk stations played music.
Maybe they’ve finally run out of bullshit, Vaughn thought as the inspectors made their way to his truck. He started the engine for the tenth time and pulled forward twenty feet.
“Papers please,” a trooper asked, voice muffled by his opaque face shield.
Vaughn produced his license, registration, proof of insurance, ration card, and travel permit. It was a great deal of fuss for a twenty-mile drive. US 285 might as well have been a road through the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin circa 1975.
“Where you headed?” asked the trooper, bluntly.
“My mother’s house. She’s watching my daughter for a few days while I look for…work.”
“You know you shouldn’t be on the highways today unless absolutely necessary.”
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t you listen to the radio?”
“There’s nothing but music on.”
“Don’t get smart with me. There’s terrorist activity. It’s a triple-red-alert day. They called in the Army last night to help get things under control.” The trooper looked over the inside of Vaughn’s truck while another officer scanned his undercarriage with a mirror, accompanied by a sniffing German shepherd.
“I didn’t hear about any of that. I’m not going to be out long. I just want to get to my mom’s and drop my daughter off.” Vaughn was not feeling much like kissing the trooper’s ass but he was savvy enough to avoid a display of contempt-of-cop. He didn’t want to send the trooper into a rage, which they were prone to do.
“Stay out of downtown. And stop wasting gas. Conservation is your patriotic duty.”
Vaughn couldn’t suppress his disaffection any longer. “Patriotic duty?” he asked.
“Yeah,” the trooper answered. “You heard me. Your duty. Your duty to quit wasting resources and your duty to stay out of our way so we can do our job protecting you.”
Vaughn felt the hot blood pump into the vessels in his face. He tried to remain calm.
“I don’t recall ever asking for your so-called protection.”
“Oh, you’re one of those types, eh?”
“What’s one of those types supposed to mean?”
The trooper turned and shouted to the other officer who was still scanning the undercarriage. “Hey O’Reilly, I got me one of those types over here.” His opaque face shield swung back to Vaughn. “What d’you say we do a full inspection on your vehicle? Huh? How about we just pull you over to the shoulder there and impound your truck? What do you think of that? Maybe you’ll get it back in month or two—what’s left of it anyway.”
Brooke started to cry again. Vaughn looked back at her, and caught a glimpse of her blue, saucer eyes reflecting the sinister trooper in black armor. Vaughn knew he had to swallow his pride, as much as he hated to do it. “You’re absolutely right,” he offered in a conciliatory tone. “That wouldn’t be good. Please forgive me for not being more understanding. I know you guys are under a lot of strain nowadays. Where would we be without you guys protecting our freedom? I’m sorry. I’m just frustrated about a lot of things right now.”
“Well don’t ever forget it.” The trooper turned to the other officer. “Everything check out?”
“Looks good down here.”
“Move along. And try showing a little more respect next time.”
“You bet. Absolutely. Thank you, sir.”
The trooper walked around the front of the truck past Brooke’s window. Brooke’s wide eyes were transfixed on him as he passed. She began to squirm in her car seat.
“Hang in there, kiddo. We’ll be at Grandma’s soon.”
“Where’s Mommy?” She asked.
“She’s coming home soon,” Vaughn answered. But as he looked at her in the rearview mirror he noticed that she was still watching the trooper and pointing at him with her tiny index finger.
Vaughn started the truck and pulled forward but Brooke’s little head swiveled and locked on to the trooper. When she finally lost sight of him she burst into screams.
“Shhh.” Vaughn tried to calm her.
“Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!”
The last of the black storm troopers disappeared into the fog as Vaughn pulled away from the checkpoint. Brooke didn’t stop screaming until they got to Grandma’s house.
Vaughn carried little Brooke up the steps to the door of an apartment. His mother Sharon greeted them just inside the door.
“What are you going to do?” she asked as she took Brooke from his arms and turned to change her.
“I don’t know, Ma. The kidnappers might call any time and I can’t leave her alone anymore.”Sharon stopped changing Brooke’s diaper to dab her eye with a square of toilet paper.
“What’s going on down here?” Vaughn asked.
“I don’t know,” his mother answered as she finished the changing. “It’s really bad, Vaughn. Phones don’t work half the time. The power goes out every day. Rolling blackouts. It’s hard to get any information from the TV or internet. All the cable shows and channels are switched around. They don’t say anything other than talk about triple-red terrorism alerts and the Chinese and how we all need to be patient and give them time to get things fixed. It all sounds like garbage to me. Are they getting things under control, Vaughn?” She dabbed her eye again then put her square of toilet paper in her pocket. She didn’t want to waste it. “I don’t see anything getting better. I go to the store and there’s nothing to buy. What’s there is all different brands now, too. Most of it is stamped with that devil hawk.”
“It’s an eagle, mom. You know, the national symbol.”
“I don’t care what kind of bird it is. It looks something that came straight from hell…swooping down on me. It’s evil.”
“It’s just a bird.”
“I never could have imagined any of this in my lifetime. It has to be worse than the Depression. There’s nothing to buy. What am I going to do with a forty-pound block of cheddar cheese, Vaughn? What am I going to do with a fifty-pound bag of flour? And those sweet potatoes? Jesus, I can’t even carry the bags out of the store. There’s no butter, eggs maybe once a week. No soap, except for lye soap. You ever use lye soap? No diapers. What do I do for diapers for Brooke when I run out? They’ve all been taken by the hospitals. I hear it’s illegal to even have diapers without a ration card. Can you believe that? It’s illegal to own diapers. I don’t understand it, Vaughn. Why can’t the government do something about it?”
“They are, Ma. But they’re just making it worse.”
“My friend Liz says that there was a huge protest last night at the capitol and that the Army came in and started shooting at people. She said there’s dozens of dead people and hundreds with really bad burns and wounds and broken bones.” She took out her square and wiped her nose again. “Liz’s husband’s a doctor. She said that these Army types showed up at the hospital in the morning and started giving everyone orders.”
“She heard that if they have a soldier come in or any male under forty that they are to be notified about it. They gave the nurses a special phone number and a bunch of Army cell phones. Told them if they didn’t call, they’d be arrested for sedition. Liz thinks a lot of the soldiers are deserting.” She went to the cupboard and got Brooke some crackers. “Liz’s husband says that the government workers are getting death threats, and people are setting their cars on fire and shooting into their windows at night and all sorts of terrible stuff. So many government workers are leaving town that the offices are all shutting down. Liz said that even the Governor left—flew out this morning.”
“What else did you hear?”
“I heard from my neighbor that there are police departments fighting with each other. There are cops arresting cops. This department is with the federal government but that department is with the state and another is with the county. They’re all fighting with each other about who does what. The cops fight while the gangs run around and terrorize everyone. It doesn’t make any sense. Nobody knows who to call for help. Everyone thinks they’re in charge but no one’s in charge. It’s chaos and no one can defend themselves because they took everyone’s guns… Do you want some crackers?”
“That’d be nice, Ma. I can’t stay very long. The kidnappers might call.”
Vaughn watched his young daughter make her way to the guest room where there was a stash of toys and books for her frequent visits. Vaughn took the crackers from his mother, followed Brooke in, and sat on the bed. Brooke set her sippy cup and crackers down on an end table, scattering crumbs everywhere. She went to the trunk where her toys were stashed and pulled out her mini teapot.
“Do you wanna sit, Daddy?” she asked.
Vaughn scrounged around in the trunk and produced two pink plastic teacups before he took a seat on the floor. Brooke was delighted. “Are we having a tea party?” he asked her.
“We are having a tea party, Daddy,” she answered with a cherubic grin of white, nubby little toddler teeth.
Vaughn held out his tiny pink teacup and Brooke poured the imaginary tea. He sipped the contents, tipping the cup back with his little finger fully extended, making the noisiest slurping noise he could. Brooke giggled. She poured some tea for herself and imitated her Daddy’s silly noises. He patted her head and brushed her golden hair away from her perfectly round, china-doll face.
“No Daddy!” she objected.
Apparently it was tea time and not hair time.
“Do we have any crumpets?” Vaughn asked in a cartoonish, British accent.
“Crumpets?” Brooke asked with a bewildered furrow.
Vaughn had no idea what crumpets were, but he seemed to recall that crumpets were the appropriate accompaniment for tea…tea and crumpets. He nibbled at an imaginary crumpet, then handed it to Brooke who did the same. They sipped imaginary tea and ate imaginary crumpets as the white mist swirled around outside the window.
“I have to go now, Brooke,” Vaughn said, not knowing how long it would be before he would see her again.
“Bye, Daddy,” she answered. The toy box having grabbed her attention.
“I have to go get your Mommy.”
“Mommy’s coming home?” she asked.
“Mommy’s coming home,” Vaughn answered.
He grasped her tiny arm and pulled her close, swallowing her up in his arms as if she were a teddy bear. He nuzzled her on the neck with his stubbly face which made her squeal and laugh. He couldn’t imagine a reason to live if he were to lose her, too. A lump crawled up and lodged itself into the middle of his throat. He had to escape before it took him apart in front of his mother. She was a hardened German woman, utterly intolerant of blubbering. Vaughn let go of Brooke, pushing her gently towards the toy box.
“I’ll come down as often as I can, Mom.” He made his way to the door.
“She’ll be fine,” Sharon answered. “Just get Jess home safe.”