In my family all the aunts and uncles came and squabbled a bit … everyone wanted a say in what happened to me but no one was really prepared to take full responsibility for me. Some of it was the notoriety; news crews wouldn’t leave me alone for a couple of weeks. Some of it was a matter of simple economics. Then I got an idea after overhearing old Judge Lackey at my parents’ wake, yet another shirt tail cousin of some type, telling a story of a young man who was seeking his emancipation. That night I looked it up and read everything I could find and decided that that was what I wanted too. After the will was read and everyone realized just how small my parents’ estate was I approached all of those adults with my request for legal emancipation.
Oh sure, they hemmed and hawed and their guilt kicked in but in the end it was a lot easier to persuade them than I could have hoped. It’s not that they didn’t love me, but I was a bit of an odd duck, like Dad, and the economy didn’t actually leave any of them the extra creds to afford an unexpected mouth at their table. The usual rationalizations were given … I’d be able to remain in familiar surroundings, I’d still be close to the small private college that had already accepted me as a dual enrolled student, I wouldn’t have to leave my church and friends, blah, blah, freaking blah. And in my head I was thinking, “And isn’t it nice that none of your lives will be turned upside down by the addition of a grieving teenage girl?”
I know it was unfair to think like that as soon as the thoughts coalesced in my head but I’m trying to be honest here. I was angry and I wanted someone to pay for what happened to my family. The problem was that I only had false targets and eventually wound up cutting my nose off to spite my face … or in other words revictimizing myself rather than blaming those that deserved the blame.
Having a Judge for a cousin sped the process up immeasurably. The one thing I hadn’t thought about was that in addition to my refusal to shove my square personality into the round holes like people expected me to, no one could quite figure out if they were supposed to keep treating me like a kid or if I had suddenly jumped the line and become an adult.
The only person that seemed to treat me the same as they always had was Matt. He held me while I cried my eyes out and patted my back when he was clueless what else to do. We got closer but it was only by so much because suddenly his parents became leery of our relationship and how it might affect Matt’s future. I never acted out against Matt’s parents but more than a few times I am ashamed to admit that I wished it had been them that got buried in the hospital rubble and not my family. I had fantasies that had our positions been reversed my parents would have opened loving arms to Matt. At my age I can often laugh at the kid I was then, but sometimes I cringe as well.
Emancipation was both easier and harder than I had expected. I didn’t have any problem keeping track of money or outdoor chores, Dad had seen to that, and I could cook and do laundry and all of the other household chores because Mom had trained me well also. It was the loneliness of the empty house and the realization that I was on my own that made me miserable late at night when I had run out of things to do to keep from dwelling on how much my life had changed.
Life’s cruelty had left me a little harder and dealing with it had made me a whole lot smarter about the real world. Matt and a few of my geekiest friends were the only people that I let get close from that point forward but even with them I still felt set apart and different. Marty, her real name was Martinique but she hated it, would get on to me sometimes, “Ew Lydie, can you possibly get any more Goth?” She didn’t mean it in a hurtful way, she was just telling me that I was sliding off the deep end with the dressing in black and acting morose all the time.
Eventually I was able to smile and then laugh again, not that there was much to smile and laugh about. Terrorist attacks became almost commonplace, but they were primarily in the larger cities. Civil unrest broke out, but again it was mostly in the cities although even our county saw a small riot when food stamp roles were cut for the third time in as many months. Curfews, Citizen ID Cards, rationing, and road blocks became more common that dandelions in the spring. The economy was in the toilet and being flushed away but that didn’t matter too awful much because the whole world was suffering the same affliction. And WW3 continued to escalate slowly drawing the US ever deeper into the international conflict.
A lot of the boys (and girls for that matter) that had graduated the year ahead of me had been drafted as the US was slowly forced to enter the fray whether the powers that be were ready to or not and a lot of our graduating class had already received their letters to report to the draft board the day after our ceremony. Even Matt had gotten a letter though it was doubtful with his extreme allergies and asthma that he could pass the physical. I hadn’t gotten a letter. I was nearly an entire year younger than most of my class mates because of when my birthday was and because I’d started school a year early. It was still several months until I got close enough to eighteen that the government could risk calling me up … and I didn’t have any parental units that they could blackmail into signing an early entrance release either.
Matt was scared but he was going because his dad’s federal job was on the line. Marty was going because they basically said it was either show up at the draft board or the IRS would grab her family’s bank account and remaining assets to deal with the back taxes her parents owed on a now defunct business. You heard lots of stories like that: give us your kids … or else. Some people fought it but no one won because technically the government was always within their legal rights to do what they threatened.
Life wasn’t a big bowl of cherries for anyone but most people were getting by in some fashion or other. And then, for no apparent reason that I’ve ever been able to discern some tipping point was reached. Some microscopic speck of badness landed on the wrong side of the scale and everything went to heck in a hand basket real fast.
In a matter of just a few weeks life as we knew it came to an end. By that I mean a worldwide infrastructural collapse occurred. I saw pictures of London and Edinburgh, Rome, Paris, Moscow, Tehran, New York, Dallas, and Los Angeles and lots of the other megatropolises before we lost the television signal; it wasn’t tri-v back then, just plain ol’ two dimensional.
It only took a small number of the population to instigate the actions that eventually destroyed the large urban areas and from there it spread out into the suburbs and from there into the rural areas. The spreading out of the troubles took time but not especially long in the scheme of things when I look back. In our area some of the worst of it came in the form of family members returning to their ancestral roots in search of food and security. I kept wondering if any of my family would show up and I think in the beginning I would have welcomed them but for various reasons they never materialized.
Most of the people in the cities stayed in the cities, at least initially. But enough of them began to fan out in all directions that it didn’t take long for emergency services in any community within twenty-five to fifty miles of the edge of a major city to crumble as badly as the urban areas did. There were populations of people that had already lived a life of chaos … those immigrants that had come to the US to escape the very thing they were having to survive again.
The migrant and transient populations were the best equipped to handle life on the road and their destination was the rural area where they could scavenge off the land. These were the people that already knew the government wasn’t going to rescue them … or they didn’t want to be rescued in the first place … and they knew how to succeed with the flotsam most people considered useless. Plenty of farmers and backyard growers began to complain of people coming in the night and stripping sections of their fields. The road blocks did no good when people didn’t travel by road. And it was like fighting locusts; you could step on and kill some but for the most part there was simply too many of them.
For about three months after the last real television show went off the air for good the town’s population seemed to grow exponentially. People all over the county had added at least one more member and usually at least two or three. The Houchins’ farm down the highway from the entrance road to my house had fifth wheels and tents all over around the big house. It looked like a refugee camp but Grandpa Houchins the patriarch of the clan ran everything like a boot camp.
I would ride my bike over to the Houchins place for news when it was no longer possible for me to bike to town. I could have driven as much as I wanted, Dad’s truck ran on the biodiesel that I was still brewing as a matter of habit to give myself something to occupy my time, but it would have made me a target and at least I wasn’t so innocent that I didn’t know what that could mean for me personally. In fact I was a walking target only people didn’t know it because I knew how to hide it and keep my mouth shut. My whole house still ran pretty much as it always had but I hid it because even a porch light would have stood out like an oasis in the dessert and people would have gotten suspicious and jealous.
Matt and I still kept in touch by radio though we used a code we developed so that no one could figure out our locations and because of this not even Matt was aware of how well off I was out in the boonies. He actually felt sorry for me and tried to get me to move in with him and his mom … his father had disappeared early in the dog and pony show and Matt could never seem to decide between considering his father a hero who died in a terrorist attack at one of the TVA sites or a scum dog that had abandoned his family in their time of need. At least I knew where my Dad was, Matt didn’t and it affected him deeply though he threw up enough barriers that most people wouldn’t have even suspected it. To tell you the truth I was so lonely at one point that I almost asked Matt and his mom and sisters to come live with me but I just never could get up the nerve; the very idea seemed to give me the cold sweats. So we continued our relationship same as we always had, it was just a long distance one.
Matt and I weren’t the only ones using radio signals to reach out and touch someone. At the beginning of The Collapse the airwaves were so heavy with transmissions it was hard to find a clear signal to talk on. Over time that problem diminished significantly and after a few months the air waves seemed to belong to the few geeky individuals clever enough to keep their radios up and running. And a working radio became a symbol of power. A positive answer to the question, “You have a radio?!” could get the operator nearly anything he or she wanted. I should have wondered how Matt kept his radio running but I didn’t. Call Matt my blind spot. I’d already lost so much I didn’t want to recognize anything that might mean further losses.
Over time the radio transmissions eventually resolved themselves into a kind of communication network dedicated to the sharing of ideas for the purpose of preserving social order. The government presence was nonexistent. They were too busy protecting our borders and trying to keep from being eaten alive from the inside out. In fact the whole country was being eaten from the inside out at that point.
By the end of summer that year the worst of it – or at least the end of the beginning – was over. The whole world seemed to have turned back the clock a hundred years. In some places even further than that. Turfs were being carved out of the urban geography. Gangs of all flavors and nationalities took over pieces of the country and called it “theirs.” Our country may still have been called the United States but was operating more like a loose confederation of immigrant strongholds with what was left of our federal government acting as go betweens to try and stave off a full blown civil, religious, and ethnic war. Attrition due to catastrophic infrastructure failure was the only thing that kept it from actually happening.
I continued to pedal to the Houchins farm but I was starved for real friendship and camaraderie. I wanted my old friends, the ones that had stood by me when I needed them. And I was feeling guilty. The stories I heard, of hunger and other hardships, made me wonder about Marty and some of the others. I tried to ask Matt but he always seemed … distant … when I tried to bring it up. I learned that if I wanted to keep talking to him I didn’t dare broach the subject.
I also wanted to know what was up with Matt for real. I had some romanticized idea that he was holding back how hard his life really was for my sake so that I wouldn’t worry. The idea took hold in my teenage brain and just ate away at me melting most of my commonsense. I finally came to the point I couldn’t stand it anymore and decided I had to get to town.
I could go on and on about the difficulty of that trip, hiding out in bushes when curfew set in, getting eat up by mosquitoes and chiggers, blah, blah, blah. And once I got to town … the humiliation I felt was beyond anything I’d ever experienced in pain except for the loss of my parents.
The long and the short of it? The last thing that Matt and his family was doing was hurting in any way shape or form. As a matter of fact none of my former good friends were feeling any pain. It took years to work it all out so to say I understood how it had all happened right after I’d witnessed it would be a lie way up in the order of magnitudes.
Who do you send for when something breaks? A repairman, someone trained to fix whatever is broken. Unfortunately a lot of repairmen don’t get the appreciation they deserve. Well, who do you turn to when your infrastructure has failed? The Geeks of course.