Inter States – A Prospective Novel of 2040


Installment 8
Chapters 18 - 22


= = = =
Here's Installment 8 in downloadable PDF format:


18 – On the Campaign Trail


Monday, October 22nd


“That’s Al Conley,” whispered Christine, in a break in the greetings and hurried conversations. They stood deep in the crowd gathering outside the First Congregational Church. Jacob Wilder glanced where she was looking, meanwhile nodding and smiling at the polite faces all around. Conley was the new editor of the Rutland Herald. He had never had any contact with him before, and wondered if he was recently from out of state.

“Have to get in a quick chat with him, all the way down here,” he said quietly. An older woman Wilder vaguely recognized moved forward from the crowd and took his hand. He turned to face her fully.

“Oh, Mr. Wilder, it’s just great to see you here, in these times. We are so happy with the job you’re doing.”

“Thank you. You look familiar. We’ve met before, haven’t we?” He was fishing through thin ice. Christine grinned, and he noted the look of “Be Careful!” in her eyes.

“Oh, just once or twice years ago. I’m just one of the biddies from Woodstock who raises money for the Greens in the county in our spare time.” Her laugh was jolly and self-effacing. Whew, he thought. Not a VIP with a big ego. “I’m Margaret Stern.”

“Your help is so, so very valuable, Margaret. We couldn’t do our work without the help of many people like you.” His voice was genuinely warm and encouraging. She was the grassroots, the sort of person who had helped him take his first political steps nearly three decades years earlier, the sort who had bake sales and invited strangers from nearby villages into her living room for party meetings. Margaret Stern was the kind Jacob really missed down in DC, where everyone was either dirt-poor and desperate, or playing some sort of high-stakes political or money game (and you could never tell where one started and the other left off). You had to watch yourself with both types. With Margaret Stern, you could relax and enjoy the muffin or cookie in your hand.

“This is Gladys Kapp,” said Margaret Stern, indicating a slight, elderly woman on her left. That was a name he knew.

“Are you related to Roy Kapp?” he asked her, raising his voice over the growing hubbub. The lady narrowed her eyes and shook her head in denial.

“Yes, she’s his mom,” beamed Margaret Stern. She leaned closer to Wilder. “Her hearing is a bit weak.” Roy Kapp was a state rep from Windsor, a moderate Republican. And apparently quite a firebrand now. He was running for re-election, and was siding with the separatists, which few Republicans had dared to do until now. Jake wondered whether she sided with the progressive cause, or was there for some other reason.

A burst of honking horns nearby caused Jake to jump, still on edge about security. They all turned toward the street. But it was nothing to worry about and Christine squeezed his arm to confirm this. A man was holding up a large hand-painted sign that read, “Honk if You’re Happy to See Jake!” The drivers of a big biodiesel logging truck and a trap behind it had been happy to oblige.

“Let’s go in,” said Christine. “I haven’t seen Anna yet, but we still have ten minutes.” They started moving toward the steps of the faded white wooden church annex. It was a cool, dry day, a harbinger of real fall weather. There were hints of fall in the maples and big-toothed aspens across the town’s common, and more red and orange starting to show on the high ridges above the valley – the advance flares of a color season that now peaked in mid-November. Fall came to Jake as a relief, after the long, oppressive summers. Relief from heat, disease, mildew, insects, the violent downpours, the sense of chaos.

They crossed the threshold of the church’s annex and walked over the wide planks of the worn, polished floor toward the low stage. It was a spacious hall with a high ceiling, full of battered metal folding chairs, and lots of windows at odd intervals along its white walls. Arden Sommers, the county chair for the Vermont Green Party, was waiting by the lectern along with several local volunteers. She turned to greet Jake and Christine as they approached. Behind them, the hall started filling as the crowd swelled up the steps.

“Jake, Christine, hi,” she said. “Looks like we’re going to have a big turnout.” She gestured out into the hall.

“Thanks to you, Arden,” smiled Jake. “You’ve been busy.”

“Oh, thanks, but - believe it or not - we’re not doing anything out of the ordinary… Public interest in this election is way beyond anything I’ve ever seen. They keep talking about the Age of Apathy, but this is far from it.” She turned toward the handful of volunteers beside her. “Wouldn’t you say so?”

They nodded in agreement. “Lawn signs, letters to the editor, chats on VNET… It’s all up,” said a thin man with a long gray beard. “Nice part is that it’s mostly physical, not virtual.”

Christine had been scanning the entrance for the primary guest of honor, Anna Cleary, and now she saw her, easing her way through the crowd with her campaign aides right behind.

“Here comes Anna,” said Christine. Their eyes turned to follow hers.

“Great,” said Arden. “Jake, I’ll introduce you right now, and then the podium’s yours.” Arden turned and hopped up onto the stage. She called “good morning” and “thank you” several times above the hubbub, and as a quiet settled onto the crowd, she began.

“Men and women of Windsor County, I am very happy to see you all here this morning, taking time from your busy lives to hear and talk with our guests. We are now less than a month away from what may be one of the most crucial elections in this state’s and this nation’s history. Especially in light of the difficulty of these times, a difficulty which strikes at the heart of our daily lives, your active commitment and participation remind me of the words of President Calvin Coolidge more than a century ago, surveying the damage of the floods of 1927:

If the spirit of liberty should vanish in other parts of the Union, and support of our institutions should languish, it could all be replenished from the generous store held by the people of this brave little state of Vermont.

She paused for a heartbeat. Above a heavy silence echoed a few coughs, and the metallic scrap of a folding chair against the floor. All eyes converged and held her.

She beamed. “Without further ado, I have the pleasure of introducing our first guest, who you all know - Vermont’s one member of the House of Representatives, one of only twelve Greens in the House – the Honorable Jacob Wilder!”

The crowd clapped vigorously, standing up, and a few cheers and whistles were heard, along with calls of “Alright Jake” and “Welcome back!”

Arden Sommers flashed a smile at Jake and at the crowd as they passed each other in front of the podium. He turned toward the hundreds of faces, many framed in gray, which were turned up at his. In the front row below, he noted that Anna Cleary, looking breathless and stressed, had taken an empty seat beside Christine.

“Well it sure is nice to be able to talk to folks in the flesh and blood, and not from behind bullet-proof glass!”

The audience chuckled. He was in a fairly friendly neighborhood. Windsor tended to support him and the VGP, although they swung toward centrist Democrats for most elected positions.

“’Specially up here at the northern end of the state, and despite all those firearms!”

The crowd roared in amusement. Bingo, thought Wilder, the joke being that the only county south of Windsor in Vermont was Windham – both of them generally less armed than the gun-toting communities of the Northeast Kingdom, a hundred miles to the north.

But he immediately assumed a more earnest tone. Folksiness went only so far in southeastern Vermont. These people supported local agriculture and Vermont’s rural tradition, but few of them had ever milked a cow or tapped a maple until the past decade. Along with the farmers, mechanics, contractors, and laborers, there were originally teachers, journalists, social workers, small business people, college professors, and software developers – many retired or middle-aged – who were thrown unexpectedly into hard-knuckle rural poverty by the changes of the Thirties. They were all Morales-supporters, now doubtful and confused by the direction of the country. Their humor, while genuine, was thin and strained these days.

“My fellow Vermonters, I only have a few things to say, because as you may know I am not prioritizing my re-election, with so much at hand in Congress…”

“Sure y’are,” called a woman’s voice to a few laughs.

“… I am grateful that a lack of opponents is affording me this luxury this time around, so I can focus on your business” (knowing nods). “No, the main event is a talk with Anna Cleary, who I have known for many years and will shortly have the honor of introducing.” His eyes met Anna’s, and he nodded his greeting to her. “Anna Cleary is the kind of person who can unite Vermont in these challenging times, who has both the vision and the practical talents to move us beyond our present situation. We have worked together on many issues, and I am here today to lend her my full, unreserved support and encouragement.”

Jake paused, and looked at the audience.

“Since I just got back from our nation’s capital two days ago” (there were several quiet hisses), “I thought I would take this opportunity and quickly run through several urgent items with you, let you know what I have heard, and add a few remarks.”

Ten minutes, Jake reminded himself. Keep it to ten minutes. He glanced at his watch, which he had laid on the lectern.

“First, there’s the news we have all heard, about Senator Bart Ross.” The crowd nodded and muttered. “I was briefed by one of his aides in Washington on Friday, and certainly understood his reasons – as reported to me - for feeling that the time had come to part ways with the Republican Party.” He straightened up and grinned. “I understand his sentiments perfectly.” There were a few tense chuckles. OK, no more humor now, thought Wilder.

“What I was told, in that briefing, was that he planned to become an independent in the time-honored tradition of the late Senator Jim Jeffords, God rest him. I believe his aide who briefed me thought that too. I received no warning that he planned to join up with…” He looked around the room, feeling a silent hum of barely-suppressed controversy, “… with the Party of the Green Mountains.” The crowd let out its breath, and he sensed the simmer of many hushed conversations as he continued.

“You know my position on that question, with all due respect to Senator Ross, and the position of the Vermont Green Party. I will repeat it here as forcefully as I can, and then we can debate it in other forums later on. I believe that it would be an enormous - a potentially tragic - mistake for the State of Vermont to secede from the United States of America. And I hold this position for one main reason that has nothing to do with our pride, our identity, or our history prior to 1791. Vermont has a history to be proud of, and an immensely strong identity, and that’s all there is to it…

“No, it is this simple, and I think Abraham Lincoln said it best: United, we stand; divided, we fall. This country is in a very serious crisis, and it is no one’s fault besides our own. But it is not the first time, and the Union held together through other crises, and both our civil rights and our economic welfare were ultimately served by that unity. Being a Green, my convictions run deep that the past century has seen an awful series of mistakes made by us – us as consumers, as voters, as family members, as members of communities – on the environmental and energy fronts. In economic policy. In social programs. Correcting these mistakes has been my main mission in twenty-five years of politics. But blaming the situation ON the USA misses the main point. None of the really big problems can be solved regionally or locally. It takes a nation, a continent. Look at how greater union, not fragmentation, has yielded new solutions for the European Union and the China-Japan East Asian Compact. No, breaking away would cause more problems than it solves. As a US state, we are part of the political process down there in DC. People listen to Vermonters. I work with allies all over the country, issue by issue. A right-wing, fundamentalist politics is certainly at work in this country, perhaps more concentrated in certain states, but as long as there is unity and constitutional process – freedom and unity! - there is hope.” He took a deep breath, and coughed. “I hope you will stand with me.”

A cautious, thin applause spread through the hall, from the front to the rear. A few dozen people stood up and clapped hard, but most did not join them. He took a drink of water from the cup provided, breathed deeply again, and went on.

“I am almost out of time, and there are two other issues I would like to share with you. First, there is the matter of the international loan consortium. We realize that some very important projects are on hold here because of the financing uncertainties. As you know, I am a ranking member of the House Subcommittee on National Security, Veterans' Affairs and International Relations. We have been back and forth on this one. The Republicans and Homelanders together hold the majority, by three votes. I am afraid that there is basically zero chance that we will see a bill leave this committee during this presidency that accepts even a small portion of the aid, even with extensive restrictions. There is even a lot of debate about which committee this will end up being handled by, and that may change.”

There were mutters of disappointment.

“And we will have to wait and see how things look things after the election. I wholeheartedly support Anthony Hedges, and I know that, if elected, when elected, he will continue the work of the Morales Administration in working constructively with the international community. In other words, there is a reasonable chance that we’ll see some of that money up here in the next year, and I know that means a lot to the continued functioning of our communities, businesses, farms, and schools, in spite” (and he raised his hand and voice for emphasis) “of the fantastic progress Vermont has made since the New Energy Plan – and even before – in expanding renewables, investing in energy efficiency, building the two new trunk railroads, and closing down the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in 2032, after the twenty-year extension of its license.”

Wilder’s audience applauded, but he knew time was starting to drag, and the room was becoming slightly stuffy, at least up closer to the rafters where he held his head.

“So, men and women of Windsor County, neighbors from nearby, the last remarks I would like to leave you with before Anna takes over – the podium, if not yet the Governorship…” (a few chuckles) “…are these. I believe, after having worked in this area for a long time, that Vermont will never remain on a sustainable path to economic revival, energy enlightenment, and environmental stewardship without an infusion of capital that we simply won’t be able to raise internally anytime in the next decade. This is a harsh fact, but one I do not hesitate to state, despite the attacks it always attracts from the right. We can languish, or we can import capital. But the importation of overseas capital is exactly what got Vermont started in the first place, and I never get tired of reminding the Homeland Front that the EU is strong today partly because of American capital it received ninety-five years ago through the Marshall Plan, money – by the way – to bail Europe out of its own experiment with self-destruction accompanied by extreme right-wing politics and poor policy decisions.”

Wilder looked around, and smiled down at Anna, who appeared relieved he had held the podium so long, allowing her to recover her composure after a rushed trip from an earlier appearance.

“So, my position, which I feel is made necessary by events, and which I have until today not made public, is that I believe that even in the event the White House and Congress reject this generous and historically wise lending offer, Vermont – along with most of New England, I’m assured – should move ahead and begin direct negotiations with China and the EU for assistance.”

“That’s secession,” yelled an elderly man near the front. “Only the federal government can sign treaties!” The crowd clapped enthusiastically, yet an undertone of conversations and scraping chairs reflected the disputes over this comment.

“This is not secession.” Jake sought to meet the eyes of the man behind the yell. He raised the volume of his voice. “We have to be clear about this. There are many forms this assistance might take, including private foreign direct investment – jobs, factories like they have now in New York City, build-operate-transfer infrastructure projects like hydro dams and rail lines, and so on – and I am convinced we need to explore these avenues, even if we have to do it as a state, or with our region.”

The crowd was in turmoil, but most appeared to approve of his position. He motioned to Anna to join him.

“Thank you very much for your attention today. I look forward to continuing these discussions, and thank you for your continuing support and ideas. Now, here is the woman you have really come here to listen to, our Lieutenant Governor, Green Party Candidate, Vermont’s next Governor, and a lovely person from Castleton whom I have known all my political life, Anna Cleary!”

Jake Wilder stood aside as Anna took the podium, clapping, hearing the warm applause roll through the venerable old hall, and relieved that his time was up and that he could take his seat again beside Christine and take a long drink of the chilled cider they had brought with them for this moment.

“You didn’t mention the forests,” whispered Christine into his ear. “Did you forget?”

He glanced at her wryly.

“This is Anna’s event,” he whispered back. “Anyway, what is there to say at this point?”

19 – To Franklin, VA

Tuesday, October 23rd

“Eight miles to go,” said Mike as a decrepit sign for Franklin came into view around yet another broad bend in the flat, even roadbed of old Route 258.

“Just in time for supper,” said Grandma.

Mike glanced at his military-issue watch, of which he was very proud. It was just past three o’clock. “We’re making good time today,” he said. The early start from the campground in Murfreesboro had been wise.

“After that story in Colerain, I’m determined to stay off the roads after dark,” muttered Grandma. “Crack of dawn from now on, especially with the days getting shorter.”

“When I mentioned to our battalion commander that my grandmother was driving a team down from DC with just one hand to meet me in North Carolina, he just laughed and shook his head. He said, she’s either darn brave or living in the past.”

“Oh, I’m just living in the past,” said Grandma. “When I was your age, a single woman – young or old – would think nothing of driving all the way from DC to Florida, or California, for that matter. Just had to lock your doors sometimes.”

“Trips were a bit quicker, though,” countered Mike.

“Mmm-hmm. You know, when I was in college all the kids in the northern schools would drive down to Florida for spring break. Imagine that!” A faint smile of recollection brushed her face. She turned away from the reins and the road and looked at Mike. “One spring break, up at UNH, three feet of old snow on the ground and still very cold, a bunch of us drove to DC in some boy’s family’s old retired limo – think they had a limo rental company, or maybe a funeral home - had dinner at my parents’ house, and hit the road again all the way to Daytona Beach. Took nine hours to DC and another fifteen to Daytona.”

“Imagine that,” said Mike quietly. “Limo.” He pronounced the unfamiliar word. “Imagine.”

“The funny part was that we had to all sleep in a two-bedroom cabin. About twenty of us. We were all over the floor in all the rooms. All sunburned, sun-drunk after the winter in New Hampshire.”

Mike was silent.

“Some were drunk in the usual way, too… That limo broke down right on the beach. We were three days late getting back to school.” Grandma was lost in reverie. “Must have been, maybe …1990.”

“Who was president then?” asked Mike.

“Clinton. No, Bush the First. Simpler times.”

They rode in silence for a while. The weather had become muggy and warm, windless, stagnant. The thick, brooding woods of tupelo, black gum, sweet gum, cypress, oak, and a host of other lowland tree species seemed to slowly breath in and out, a moist respiration gradually sucking the crumbling road into the swamps. Not far to the east, the Great Dismal Swamp sat like a great peat sponge on the late-afternoon landscape, its festoons of Spanish moss motionless, its caimans now competing with alligators for a share of its rich rodent and fish life.

“Grandma,” Mike mused out loud, breaking into the long pause. “Speaking of road trips - as you used to call them; in those days, whole populations could just hop in their cars and get out of the path of hurricanes, couldn’t they?”

“Oh, I guess they could. Although there had to be a lot of warning and coordination so they didn’t end up stuck in traffic jams as the storms hit. Sometimes, things didn’t go so smoothly. There was that hurricane named Katrina back around 05, 06, that hit New Orleans. A lot of people died because they either couldn’t or didn’t bother evacuating. Even back in the gilded age, some people didn’t have cars…” She gestured with the reins. “Want to drive?”

“Sure.” Mike took them. Grandma stretched and shook her arms and hands vigorously. He continued, “I was thinking about those folks down in Florida now. They’re pretty much stuck. My old buddies in the Corps and the Florida National Guard are certainly moving them away from the shore and from areas that always flood, but that’s all they can manage, with so little transportation. Pack ‘em into hurricane bunkers and hope for the best.”

“Not a safe place to live in these days, ” murmured Grandma. “No wonder all those folks have been leaving Florida, heading west. The ‘Ridians.”

“Do you think we should be changing our course?” asked Mike. “Maybe heading west, too?”

Grandma laughed fatalistically. “Who knows? What, we travel 20, 30 miles inland, and what if it hits us anyway? Wouldn’t we feel dumb?”

“Seems like it would lessen the chances, anyway.”

“Maybe you’re right, grandson.” She drew in and blew out a deep breath. “But we add a few days to our trip as well, whatever danger we escape or don’t escape, and every additional day is another day we might get held up, or lose a horse, or whatever…”

“Let’s hope the bugger veers off and goes out to sea,” said Mike.

“They usually do. Did you see whether we’re in Virginia yet?” Grandma peered around at the lush forest. They were passing a billow of kudzu vine that looked like a wave about to cover the road.

“You know, I’ve been wondering and haven’t seen a sign, but I’ll bet we are. I think the border was around half-way. Maybe the sign was covered by vines.”

They continued in this vein for some time, talking about weather, the surrounding landscape, the condition of the road, the hamlets they traversed. They passed a huge snapping turtle, big around as a bushel basket, as it was just starting to cross the road. Grandma gazed down at the impressive reptile pensively. It recoiled from the horses’ hooves and wagon wheels, hissing.

“Talking about road trips and the old days, another difference just occurred to me, Mike.”

“What’s that, Grandma?”

“Why, the road kill!”

Mike looked at her, his head cocked.

“All those years driving down here in the car with mom and dad, and later. Sometimes we’d take I-95, sometime we’d come this way. With all that fast traffic in those days, the animals would die in droves, get hit by the motor traffic. Especially places like this, with thick forest both sides of the road. Their instincts had no place for cars and trucks going 65 miles an hour.” She gestured up the road ahead. “Every hundred feet there’d be something dead and rotting by the roadside. Skunks, raccoons, frogs, coyotes, beavers, turtles, snakes, people’s cats and dogs… Folks hit deer sometimes, even died in deer collisions. Up in New Hampshire we were always afraid of hitting a moose.”

“Don’t see that nowadays,” commented Mike. “What a mess it must have been.” Almost on cue, a chipmunk scurried across the road with its tail held straight up like a whip antenna.

At a crossroads, a woman in a trap drew level and tried to cajole them into buying some eggs. Grandma was friendly but clear. “I’m in the food business myself, honey,” she called over the clopping hoof-beats. Driving through a large village named Forks of the River (although no river was visible), they were suddenly surrounded by a small group of ragged children begging for loose change. Mike hesitated – this had been a daily occurrence during his Army service, and giving meant breaking the rules – but Grandma pulled out some silvers and tossed them down.

“God bless you, Mizz,” shouted two older girls in long, grimy smock dresses and aprons.

“Make for at least one better meal for those kids.” She glanced at Mike.

“Couldn’t do that in the Corps,” he noted.

“Well, I don’t do it all the time, but the kids always touch me. Bothers me. We ought to at least be able to feed ourselves well. Lots of land. Lots of knowledge. Lots of able hands. No water shortages here…”

“Lot of people going very hungry,” said Mike. “You should have seen what I saw in Georgia and Alabama. Rich agricultural land everywhere and people practically starving in the cities. Things have looked pretty good since I got to North Carolina.”

Another sign for Franklin appeared – only two miles to go – as they drove under Route 58. There was more traffic in evidence. “Let’s stay at an inn tonight, Mike. It’s on me. We’ve earned it.”

“That sounds great, Grandma. Any place in particular?”

“There’s a Southern Comfort Inn I heard good things about on the way down. Old motel, with a full stockade all around it, guarded. Staffed stable. We’ll be safe. Plus, they’ve got a diner. Think it’s right near the center. If that’s full, I think there’s another one around here that’s decent. They’ll know.”

With another long day together coming to a close, Mike thought about how, in a mere six days, he has spoken more with his grandmother than he had in the previous ten years. They had covered so many topics: family, politics, the past, the future, Mike’s career, fruit and vegetable gardening, horsemanship, and of course the gold. On several occasions, he had repeated an early question: “Grandma, are you sure you never told anyone about the gold?”

“No one alive,” she consistently replied. “My parents knew. So did Jack’s. Maybe Ed knew, too, but he was very discreet. Never would have gossiped.”

“So I’m the only one, now?”

“Yes.”

But, finally, after several days of denying it, Grandma admitted that there was one other person who she had told relatively recently. “Maryann knows now. I always felt guilty about not telling her. Of course, she never had much interest in the island, and stayed up north from college onwards, while I pretty much took over responsibility for the house once I was out of UNH.”

“How did she react?” Maryann was his great aunt, Grandma’s sister, who he had seen little of since he was small.

“She laughed and laughed, and said I was starting to suffer from delusions. Then, when she started to believe me, she was OK about it. Seemed perfectly accepting. Probably still doesn’t quite believe me. Just humoring me… Plus,” added Grandma, “I plan to give a small amount to her and Christine, as a gesture.”

A gesture of what, wondered Mike? And then he suddenly realized he was starting to feel possessive of this gold – this fortune which at today’s prices could completely change the lives of Grandma, him, and the rest of their immediate family. Gone would be the endless work, the physical toil, the tiring trudging and pedaling of bicycles in the summer heat and winter cold. They could completely upgrade their quality of life. They’d have decent food, a cell-electric, home security, medical care. They could almost live like oligarchs…

Grandma watched his reaction closely. He realized he was frowning. She laughed and whispered to him, even though Fernando was back in the bed and could not hear, “Mikey, don’t start losing your wits over this!” Her whisper became more authoritative. “Don’t start getting jealous and paranoid.”

He was taken aback, but then smiled sheepishly. “Grandma, it’s worth a hell of a lot of money. I guess I’m just afraid something might happen to it. It could make such a difference for us all.”

“And it will,” she said. “I decided to let you in on this because you’ve always been trustworthy, and you’re the only one in our family who can make a trip like this and play the role you’re playing. I’ve been guarding and thinking about this gold for almost twice as long as you’ve been alive. We’re not going to blow it. But we need to trust each other. Can we?”

Mike sat up, embarrassed and surprised. “Yes, of course.”

“Good, because there’re a lot of people we can’t, even people close to us who have good intentions but weaknesses as well. Your mother, for example, poor girl.”

“And Hon?”

“Mike - Captain Kendeil - look, now you’re talking like a kid. The gold stays between you and me, period. You don’t tell anybody. If I decide someone needs to know, I tell them. OK?”

Mike chuckled, shaking his head and taking a deep breath. “Yes, Grandma. I understand completely. Funny how personal family things make you forget how to act like a professional.”

“Military professional, at that.” She patted his leg. “Let’s run this one as if national security depended on it.” She paused. “In particular, two people I’m especially concerned about are Steve and Sanna.”

“Steve? He been around?” Mike was surprised.

“No, no sign of him for a while. Hon got her divorce in absentia. But you never know when he might show up, and, I mean, he’s got a criminal record now.”

Mike nodded, his eyes on the team. Grandma called to the horses to slow the pace as they entered the town.

“What about this Sanna?” he asked.

“That’s right. You’ve never met her.”

“No.”

“Whew. Where to start? She’s got this nice, breezy manner, but sometimes she’s so keyed up she’s manic. ADHD candidate. RDD, maybe.”

Mike winced invisibly.

“Seems honest, maybe,” continued Grandma. “She’s a full partner with Hon in the business, works hard. But I think there’s more than meets the eye. Just a hunch. Vtopian, I’ve suspected. I’d never trust her for a second with something like this.” Grandma was studying the road signs and the approaching town gate. “Here, Mike. I’ll take over the driving in these close quarters.” Mike handed her the reins. They stopped at the open gate. To the left and right stretched a mixture of chain-link and wooden fences. Beside the gate was a watchtower. Two policemen came up to the wagon. Mike watched them approach, glancing to see Grandma’s reaction. She was pleasant, steady.

“Evening, ma’am. Sir. Um, gentlemen.”

“Evening,” replied Grandma and Mike in unison. Fernando waved and nodded.

“Business in Franklin?” The senior policeman was blank-faced, official. His younger colleague was circling the wagon, looking at the exterior and at his hand-held, where the MRI imagery was displayed. They both had automatics over their shoulders.

“Stopover for the night, officer.” Grandma spoke with a friendly, polite lilt. “My grandson Captain Mike Kendeil and I are moving a household shipment from the Outer Banks up to Chevy Chase, Maryland.” They waited for the usual retinal scan; this was not a Federal checkpoint, so there was almost no likelihood they would be using RFID scanners.

“Where’re y’all staying for the night, ma’am?” asked the policeman.

“At the Southern Comfort Inn, we hope,” answered Grandma.

“Reservations?” His tone remained terse, formal.

“No, sir. Should we?”

The policeman smiled. His partner put away the hand-held and rejoined him. “Well, they don’t look that busy right now, so you’re probably fine. If they’re full, I’m sure they can find y’all somewhere safe and comfortable.” He raised his hand. “Have a nice stay in Franklin. We appreciate your business.” He pointed up the road. “Fourth left, and then look on your left a block past the railroad tracks.”

They rode up wide, shady streets of modest brick and wooden houses. The town looked well-cared-for. You could tell they had reliable electricity and water. There was fresh paint around. In the yards behind picket fences, children played and people worked in gardens. Horses grazed in corner lots. Pigs and goats idled in garden-side stalls. Roosters called. Wagons and carts stood parked in front of the open doors of carriage houses, and traffic rattled on the rutted streets. They passed hardware stores, grocers, farriers, a fabric shop, a dilapidated bank, a lumber yard and sawmill, a large electronics flea, and various open-air markets. The tang-tang of a blacksmith’s hammer rang out from up an alley. A coal-wagon stood unloading outside a launderers, its grimy driver eying them as they passed.

“Fourth left. High Street,” said Grandma. “I think we need to turn left here. The inn is right after we cross the railroad tracks.”

They drove the last few blocks in the falling dusk, spirits rising as they looked forward to showers, clean sheets, and their first restaurant meal of the journey.

“There it is,” said Mike. They saw the extravagant electric sign first, and then the high, ornate stockade wall. “The Southern Comfort Inn!”

Grandma let out an arrestingly shaky sigh of relief. “I can finally wash my hair.”

But Mike’s eyes spotted relief of a different, more tantalizing kind. Beside the Inn, just outside its stockade, painted on the blank cinderblock wall of a low, squat building, was a sign announcing “The Venus V-TEL.” Beside its narrow metal door hung a placard on which was hand-painted the word “Vacancy.” He took a deep breath. It had been a long time.



20 – Betrayal


Tuesday, October 23rd – Wednesday, October 24th

“Hon, sweetheart,” said Sanna, after they finished dinner and began the process of cleaning up the kitchen and bathing the boys. “I’m going out with my Glover Park hoodies for a little bit. It’s Shyloh’s birthday – you know, the gal from Baker’s – and I want to show them all I care.”

“You show them you care by buying from them every day.” Hon was exhausted, her temper short.

“You know what I mean.” Sanna whirled around emphatically. “Don’t worry, kitty. I won’t go before the boys are in bed.” She walked out of the kitchen with Asa, calling for Lee.

Honorée looked at the clock. It was seven, and she was behind schedule. “As long as you don’t oversleep for the early wholesale!” She did not have much empathy for Sanna’s endless appetite for nightlife. With the market stand and the products business, plus the two boys, there seemed to be no time at all for anything else. Thanksgiving was the next opportunity for a decent break, and it was still six weeks away. Going out like this felt dangerously frivolous. She scrubbed absently away at a greasy frying pan, wishing they had some strong coffee. And hot water.

“They’re both in the tub now,” shouted Sanna from the front hall stairs a few minutes later. “Do you need the kettle now?”

“Could you PLEASE stay up there with them?!” asked Honorée, raising her voice. “You shouldn’t leave them alone.”

“Going right back, sarge.” Honorée caught sight of Sanna with a load of laundry bounding back up the stairs. She heard her singing some old show tune upstairs, along with the splash of the bathwater.

After eight, when both boys had been bathed, dressed in pajamas, read to, and put to bed, Sanna was out the door like a shot. “I’ll keep my eyes and ears open for new pickle deals, puss. Won’t be too late!” She mounted her bicycle, engaged the dynamo with a thump, and sped off toward Massachusetts Avenue in the muggy darkness. Honorée turned on the 3V and turned toward her new pile of clothes. Two hours of ironing and folding passed, and – barely able to stand for fatigue – she switched off the living room lights and staggered up to bed.

# # #

The sound of the kitchen door closing awakened Honorée from a deep sleep. A light went on downstairs. It had to be Sanna. She rose up on her elbow, watching for motion. Sanna banged around in the kitchen. Then there was silence. Honorée became more fully awake. Sanna did not appear. Curious, Honorée slid her legs out of bed and stood up. Not wanting to awaken the boys in the next room, she tiptoed along the hallway to the top of the stairs. “Sanna,” she whispered sharply. Silence, but then she heard Sanna speaking and laughing quietly in a foreign language - Polish, by the sound of it. Was she on the phone, or VNET? It’s already morning there, thought Honorée as she descended the stairs softly. Sanna stayed in touch with her wide web of relatives across Europe. Her voice came from the tiny den off the living room. Honorée passed Sanna’s bomber jacket, slung over the pommel at the base of the banister, and the strong scent of hemp smoke filled her nostrils, along with Sanna’s customary perfume. Her anger started to ignite. This was starting to feel like Steve all over again. She came to the door of the den. The scene punched her.

Sanna was kneeling on the floor, the VRI headset covering her ears, eyes, and mouth down to the level of her chin. She had taken off her top, and was writhing rhythmically with one hand on the arm of the sofa for stability, batless, as she was a fluent mindsurfer. Sanna did not need a bat any more than she needed a mouse.

She was moaning and speaking softly and urgently in Polish, breathing in little shallow gasps. A wireless I-ball sat perched on the sofa, taking in the scene for someone, somewhere. Honorée watched this for a split second, and then - in a fury of disapproval and disappointment - swooped down on the PC and pulled out the plug, smacking the I-ball into space as she lunged. Sanna froze.

“Yes,” shrieked Honorée, forgetting the sleeping boys. “You’re in my reality again, back in MY home! What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” She coughed up a sob. Sanna remained frozen, on her knees, both hands now clutching the sofa, the headset still covering her face. Honorée could not see her expression because the muscle-sensor mask came down so low.

“You stay down here, Sanna.” Honorée was in control of her voice again, talking low and angrily. “Don’t come near me. We’ll talk about this in the morning.” Dizzy, holding the doorframe, Honorée turned and quickly returned upstairs, her heart pounding.

In the bedroom, she closed and locked the door, and then, remembering the boys, she unlocked it and opened it again. There was silence throughout the house. Nothing from the boys, nothing from Sanna. She sat down on the bed, her heart still pounding. This was it, she thought. She denied the obvious and delayed the inevitable with Steve for two years like a stupid fool, and now, impossibly, she seemed to be heading right back into the same kind of situation, and not even with a man. Tears of rage ran down her face, and her chin contorted beyond her control. But she was not going to just wait and hope this time. She was going to lay down the law and set the terms and the pace of what happened next. She wished Grandma were already back. Grandma was always wise and empathetic in tough situations, and acted fast.

# # #

When Honorée awoke, it was already light and she could hear Asa singing to himself in his crib in the next room. Lee was deeply asleep beside her. He often joined them in their bed in the early hours, silently and stealthily. The clock said quarter of six. She got out of bed and pulled on her bathrobe, the memory of the night before returning. Was Sanna downstairs? What next? Was Sanna going to be honest about her VNET and physical nightlife, and put it behind her? How should she respond? Could there be reconciliation? Nobody was perfect. Honorée had no taste for lies and concealment.

Downstairs, there was no sign of Sanna: no note, no mess in the kitchen, nothing. Her jacket was gone, and Honorée saw the PC was still unplugged and the VRI set lying on the sofa. The I-ball lay sightless in the middle of the carpet. Probably went to one of her friends’ apartments. Sanna always just took off, walked away, when things got difficult. Or tried to turn everything serious into a joke. That was one of the things Honorée had loved about her in the beginning. Her own family and their network and community were so serious, so neo-puritan, so earnest. Sanna made everything lighter, easier to take. The danger with levity, thought Honorée, was that if you floated up too high the twin jet streams of VNET and drugs might just blow you away.

She opened the kitchen door, which was unlocked. Something small and light caught her eye. She glanced down. It was a partly smoked joint, lying discarded next to the doorstep. Then something bigger struck her. The van! It was not in their narrow driveway, inside the garden wall. She looked around quickly. Sanna’s bike was still there, on the porch, as was her own, with the trailer beside it.

Very worried now, she retreated into the kitchen, closing the door. Upstairs, she could hear Asa banging something, wanting to be let out of his crib. She needed to think this through. Maybe Sanna had gone down to the morning wholesale market as usual. They definitely needed income, and a missed day would cost a lot, spat or no spat. Who would know? Barry Johnson, the fruit guy! She picked up the phone and started scrolling through the list of called numbers. His name came up. She saw by the number it was a mobile. She clicked the enter button with her thumb.

“This is Barry,” came his baritone voice over the background din of the market.

“Barry, this is Honorée Loporto, Sanna’s partner.”

“Hey Honorée,” he answered jovially.

“Hi. Sorry to bother you, but have you seen Sanna?”

“Nope, not yet. When’s she coming by?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Trying to track her down. I don’t know.”

Barry made a deep chuckle, and said, “Because I’ve got those four cases of nice peaches for y’all here, and we’re closing up in two hours, and I can’t hold ‘em if Sanna doesn’t show pretty soon.”

“Well, go ahead and sell them if she isn’t there by seven. I’m really sorry to put you out like this.”

“No worries, Mizz Loporto. Hope I see her soon.”

“Me too. Thanks.”

“Bye.” They hung up simultaneously. Honorée leaned back against the counter, one foot against the cabinet below. She held the phone against her chest, pondering, ignoring the thumping upstairs which was growing louder. What to do now? Honorée’s mind was a whirl of questions. She had to get Lee to preschool. Grandma was gone – no help there. Who could watch Asa if she had to go out to the stand and work it alone? She could call her mother, Claudia, but was reluctant because Asa was almost too much for her to handle. She wished once again – a futile wish – that her sister Jenny still lived in Washington. She was superb with small kids. Lee and Asa loved her. And how would she track down Sanna and the van? A crash from above – Asa pulling out one of the dresser drawers – sparked her into action, her stress soaring.

Two hours later, things were better. Claudia was there, sitting in the kitchen with Asa on her knee. Lee was at school. There was still no sign or signal from Sanna. Honorée downed a strong tea, and smiled wanly at her mother.

“You were over here so fast, I could hardly believe it.”

“I was up early for some reason, Hon. Lucky for both of us.” Claudia did not appear to feel lucky.

“I’m really sorry about all this, Mom.”

A look of sympathy mixed with disdain conflicted her mother’s face. “I know it’s not you, honey. Pretty horrid of Sanna.”

“I hope that’s all it is. And a one-time thing.” Honorée had not told her mother exactly what had happened the night before. “We’re in business together, and things are pretty scary these days. Plus, she’s got the van and it will make me nervous until I know it’s safe.”

Her mother pursed her mouth and said nothing, jiggling Asa absently on her knee. Asa kept trying to reach for a nearby curtain. Claudia Kendeil was a thin, sharp-featured woman in her early fifties, with dark circles around her eyes and dark-brown hair coiled in a tight bun on her head. She lived with Grandma in the big, old Victorian in Chevy Chase, where she had moved some years before when she lost her editing job downtown. Once a feisty, resolute woman – she had raised three children alone after her divorce from their father – she had become increasingly vague and passive in recent years. She continued doing some editing work on a freelance basis, mostly for old friends and acquaintances in the government, and helped Grandma with market garden paperwork and household chores. Although her mother would not admit it, Honorée suspected she was taking some sort of drug. At a deep level they could not discuss, Honorée understood her mother’s state of mind had more than a little to do with the fact that the world in which she had grown up and thrived had all but vanished. Gone were the charity balls, debutante cotillion dances, country club luncheons, and tennis dates with high school friends. The identity that Claudia Kendeil had fashioned securely around herself, always short of money but still able to preserve access to a world of privilege and style and social affirmation, had become utterly impossible to maintain.

“I’m going to call Mary, at the next stall. If Sanna’s not there, then I’m going to have to go into VNET and see if I can track her down there.”

“Better you than me.” Claudia was no fan of VNET, after what she had seen it do to others.

A quick phone call confirmed that Sanna had not appeared at White Flint. Honorée swore in frustration – prompting a disapproving sigh from her mother - and went into the den. She plugged the PC back in, waved the bat to open the VNET V-Icle, and put the headset on. For an instant, her eyes adjusting to the changed focal depth, all she saw was the perpetually sunny landscape of the screensaver, accompanied by the sound of wind and distant music. Unconfident with cognitrol, she settled back on the sofa with the bat in her right hand. Steering with the bat, her body tensed as she started flying across the virtual landscape toward Menu City, laid out below her like an endless pastel grid of buildings, parks, streets, and glistening watercourses.

“Peepfinda,” she said softly. With smooth precision, she dove into a wide and deep stadium, which seemed to telescope into great depth the deeper she flew into it, becoming almost like an enormous fluted cylinder. The stands were full of thousands upon thousands of people. However, instead of watching some sports event, they were all talking, writing, gesturing, staring, or doing a variety of other things, seemingly oblivious to their neighbors. Some in fact were not ordinary people at all, but an endless diversity of animals, monsters, super-heroes, historical figures, and other assumed forms. “People-finder ready,” responded the service with a voice set to sound like some British film diva, with a slight reverb.

“Find Sanna Nanou-Olsson, NID last four digits three-six-three-nine,” intoned Honorée, clicking the button at the top of the bat with her thumb. “Found,” came the People-finder’s reply. She swooped toward a lower level of the stands, and zoomed in toward a distant figure sitting talking, its legs crossed. A flashing red square surrounded the figure. As it rapidly grew larger, Honorée saw it was a dark, cobalt blue with the body of a curvaceous woman and the head and face of a cat.

“Sanna?” she called, pointing the bat at the red square. The cat-face looked up at her and then suddenly vanished. The red square continued to flash on the same now-empty seat. Honorée hovered in space about twenty feet from it. “Sanna, are you still there?” She knew she was still online, lurking and listening. “Please answer me.” She clicked impatiently on the square. “Sanna, come on. Talk to me. Don’t just go online and drop out. We need to talk. Where’s the van? What are you doing?!” Her voice rose in anger at the end. Still, there was no reply. Then, the red square vanished.

“Find same again,” Honorée said.

“Offline,” said the Peoplefinda Diva.

“Take email dictation,” said Honorée.

“Dictation ready!” The People-finder was replaced by a smiling, vivacious image of Tinkerbell, flitting a few feet ahead of Honorée’s avatar in the vast open space of the cylinder. Honorée started speaking. The text flew like quick little flies onto the curved surface of a bubble in Tinkerbell’s hand, which expanded as the message lengthened. Honorée repeated her questions for Sanna, implored her to get in touch, vented her frustration slightly at the difficult practical situation now confronting her above and beyond their personal falling out.

“Done. Send it.” Tinkerbell and the bubble shot off into space, vanishing upwards into a point. Honorée floated, wondering what to do next. Sanna’s friends? Could she find them?

“Peepfinda,” she said again.

“At your service,” came the reply.

“Find Sanna’s friends.”

“Password please,” answered People-finder.

Jesus, thought Honorée. What could it be? “Blue-jean queen,” she tried, remembering what Sanna used for the van’s personal config lock.

“Incorrect. No access,” said People-finder. “Password please.”

Honorée reflected for a moment. Sanna had plenty of casual friends, but few good ones and no relatives in the area. There was always her mother, in Gothenburg – a woman with whom Honorée’s contact had always been distant and cordial at best.

“Find Zenobie Olsson in Gothenburg, Sweden,” she requested.

“Found.” After a series of rapid, spiraling drops, Honorée found herself hovering in an empty foyer void in front of a Barbie-like teenage figure dressed in cutoff shorts and a white T-shirt with a mop of blond hair, a small round suntanned face, and sparkling green eyes. The Barbie looked up at her in surprise. She was clearly in a conversation elsewhere.

“Ja? Vem är det?” Sanna’s mother answered in Swedish.

“Oh, hello, Zenobie, it’s me, Honorée.” Honorée looked down at her own form, and realized she was still using the silly mermaid avatar she and Sanna had created not long before. “Just a moment.” She pulled down the personal profile menu and selected “Normal,” instantly reappearing as a three-dimensional holomorph of herself.

“Oh, yes? How are you?” Zenobie seemed unexpectedly friendly. This caught Honorée off guard. In her short acquaintance with Zenobie, she had always seemed to sense either a disapproval of Sanna’s lesbian life-choice, or was it suspicion that Honorée was not reliable and might change her mind? “Why don’t you come in?”

“Sure, thanks,” replied Honorée, and suddenly they were in a dazzlingly life-like forest clearing with a group of Zenobie’s friends, apparently – all chatting and socializing.

“My friend David is a landscape artist. This is his chat-grove.”

“It’s lovely.” Honorée turned to look at Zenobie. For a moment, she was captivated by the virtual scene. It was brilliantly realistic. The crispness of the sunlight and shade, the outlines of the leaves, the silvery fuzz of tiny hairs on Zenobie’s perfect arms, their sinews and musculature. Zenobie’s skin was magnificent. She stood up and brushed aside her hair. The movement was fluid, sensual. Honorée suddenly felt awkward, appearing in this scene with only the headset and her low-resolution holomorph skin - a wooden cartoon character with limited mobility in a display of such subtle detail and liquid movement. This was so real, more real than reality itself. She felt a pang of inadequacy. But she fought it. She was not there for socializing, for posing. “Zenobie,” she began. “Pardon me for dropping in like this, with no warning, but has Sanna been in touch today?”

“No, I haven’t heard from her in some time. For days, I think. Why? Has something happened?”

“Yes, well… We had a fight last night. Things are a, um, they’re strange and I’m not sure where we’re headed, but…”

The expression on Barbie-Zenobie’s face switched to concern. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I thought Sanna was really settling down. Where is she? Is she all right?”

“I don’t know. She left last night. Took our van. You see, we’re a couple but we’re also in business and things are stressful enough as is…”

“I see.” Barbie-Zenobie suddenly held a seashell-shaped telephone receiver near her head. “Have you called her?” Honorée nodded but then shook her head. “Do you want me to call her?”

“Yes, if you don’t mind. I found her for a second, but then she blocked me and I couldn’t get through.”

“Sure. Wait a minute.” Sanna’s mother spoke softly into the seashell in Swedish. She nodded, and smiled at Honorée. “I’ve got her…”

“Ask her if we can talk. I need to speak with her.” Honorée watched Zenobie relay this to her. She spoke softly with her for several minutes, nodding, her face grave. The she put the seashell away and faced Honorée.

“She said she’s sorry she has upset you, but she needs some space, some time to think. She’s confused about many things. I know my daughter…”

Honorée felt irritation and anxiety rising inside her. “Yes, yes,” she interrupted impatiently. “I’m confused, too. So many feelings. But we have a business we rely on, and Sanna has disappeared, taking both her working self and our van with her. Even if she wants to take time off, I need the van so we can get products to the market to sell. We are losing money for every hour we’re not open. We’re supposed to be opening very soon.” Her voice rose in anger. “Oh, Christ, this is really NOT what I had planned for today…”

“I’m sorry for you, Honorée, I really am. Sanna said she’ll call you very soon, after a little while to, to get things together…”

“Well, when you speak with her again, tell her I need the van now, and the rest can wait until she is ready. But this is just awful!” Her holomorph moved back and forth like a paper cutout, only the expression on her face lifelike. Zenobie saw her distress.

“I’ll tell her about the van. But Honorée, I am worried about Sanna and I think she is very much affected now by the situation in your country. I want her to come back home to Sweden – I’ve been telling her this, and with you and the boys, too. Very welcome, all of you. Your life, it is so hard, and we are getting worried about the coming years, about how they will affect you.”

This idea was not something Sanna had shared with Honorée. “Is she interested in doing this?” asked Honorée. “Has she talked about it?”

“Yes, every now and then.” Zenobie crossed her wiry, honey-tanned arms and shifted her weight to the other hip. “More, recently. I think she very much wants to.”

“She’s said none of this to me.”

Zenobie looked sad, or was it just a certain programmed-in mournfulness or gravity about her avatar – the grave-woman-child look? She replied, “She should say how she feels, tell you this…”

“Zenobie, I need to get to work, but tell her to please call me, please, to let me know.” Honorée raised her bat to end the conversation.

“For sure. I will.” The waif-like blond girl in the forest glade smiled and waved her hand, and then, in an instant, receded into a dot and was gone.















21 – At The Coolidge Hotel


Wednesday, October 24th

“The Homelanders are going to try to make hay with this.” Bill Zeller took a deep gulp from his sweating glass of ice water and put his thick fingers together, elbows on the table. “Lot of out-of-state money and pressure. Not sure how many they’ll sway. There aren’t very many of them here. Bart’s one of us. But they’ll try. Vermont’s a test case. You should hear some of the stuff, especially in the VNET soapbox rooms. They’re calling it treason, building fear with it.”

Jake knew the chatter. It went on and on, in a million VNET chambers, ten-thousand news feeds, all pretty much alike. Cynical, panting speculation. About politics, personalities, gossip – global and oversaturated. Endless online conversation for its own sake, while in the “RNET” – drab, daily reality – most people spent most of their time grubbing for their food, repairing what was left of their consumer goods, and maintaining the horses, donkeys, and bicycles that had become their lifelines…

Jake glanced at Christine. She was listening brightly to Bill’s report, a faint smile on her lips. Even after three days of intense campaigning, she did not look especially tired. He wondered where she got her vigor and composure. He felt drained and shaky.

“I was there in Rochester myself,” Bill recalled, “right there in town on the common – you know, where Route 100 goes through – and he was up on a small rise by the war memorial. It was fascinating. I’m looking out across these faces – lot of folks, more than a thousand, a lot down from Montpelier on the bus – and I’m asking myself, how are they taking this? Are they thinking he’s committing political suicide? Do they support him? Do they think he’s irresponsible? Or that he represents some kind of solution to what’s going on?” Zeller himself could go on and on, and he looked like he was about to. He was the chief editor of the Vermont Clarion, a shrewd observer of state and national politics and a staunch supporter of Greens and progressive Democrats. He had cut his political teeth back before the turn of the century with the likes of Dean, Douglas, Leahy, and Jeffords, back in the newsprint era. Jake intercepted his gathering monolog.

“Bill, one thing’s for sure: Bart’s lost all ability to influence the Republicans in the US Senate, which is good for my little party, maybe – they’ll go even further to the right, now – but I think it’s bad for America and bad for Vermont in the long run.”

The arrival of the waiter interrupted the flow of their conversation. As he took orders, Jake looked around the old-fashioned décor of the Coolidge Hotel’s restaurant. The venerable railroad hotel in White River Junction had not changed fundamentally in probably a hundred and fifty years. Oil paintings of various important people and pastoral landscapes dotted the faded plaster walls. Jake’s own grandparents had once had their wedding reception in this very room. Jake and Christine had invited Bill Zeller here for lunch and a chat before they headed back down south on the 3:15 train. As always, Zeller was happy to oblige. Conveniently, he lived nearby, in Norwich.

“Jake, my big issue now is how he’ll influence voters here in Vermont. DC dynamics come later. Things are now very evenly matched here. You’re hearing self-appointed experts saying it’s a done deal for the Republicans, the way you Greens and the Democrats and the PGM have fragmented the left, but I don’t see this as a left-versus-right election. Bart Ross hasn’t turned liberal-progressive in the least… He’s pro-business, old-style conservative. And then there’s also the referendum on secession.”

“More than one hundred towns have it on the ballot now,” breathed Christine.

Bill nodded. “Over a hundred and twenty now, for eighty-five percent of the population.” He drank from his beer, which had just arrived. “But anyway, what I was saying was this…” He puffed and inhaled. “So, we’re standing there in Rochester, and we had decided to do a live opinion poll. I’m there with Molly and Sandi. When Ross stopped speaking, there was lots of applause, and we started working the crowd, just asking the question, ‘What does this mean to you as a voter and as a citizen?’ We were recording.”

Jake and Christine leaned forward with curiosity. No hands-off editor, Zeller was known for jumping right into the trenches.

“And we got amazing stuff. It’s coming out in the next issue, like a whole forum. It was all over the map, but there was one common theme.”

“Yeah?” Jake was tiring of Bill’s dramatic running start.

Bill laughed. “OK. Well – no big surprise - most people there clearly felt DC is a runaway train – has been for years and years - and that if Vermont has to choose between a shipwreck and secession, they’ll take the latter, whatever the transition involved. And the chances increased if other New England states went the same way. And nobody said they’d emigrate. A lot said their relatives would all move here if it happened. Or that they already had…”

Jake shook his head. “As if it were so clear… This is such a complicated issue, but despite how bad things are getting, how can people ignore the risks?”

“So, in my conversations, I asked a follow-up question: ‘How will you know if or when it’s time to choose?’ And this was interesting. I’d never asked that question before. Some said they already simply knew it was. Others said the clincher was going to be the foreign loan deal. Several used the term ‘abandoned’. They talked about how we were abandoned when the refineries decided to satisfy the national demand for transport diesel rather than our need for number two heating oil. About how federal laws had been overriding ours across the board for decades. You know, capital punishment, nuclear power, education, the environment, campaign reform, journalistic confidentiality, forests, firewood, and so forth. About how we were paying the price for others’ fanaticism. This international loan deal was seen as the final test. Oh, and FORSA, too. And they weren’t too worried about opening up the US market to foreign competitors again, lifting trade restrictions. Especially Canadian.”

“Don’t you think the crowd in Rochester was a little self-selected, a bit biased?” Jake asked skeptically. “I don’t suppose Bart’s enemies were there. Hecklers?”

“Ha, you think we’re idiots?” Zeller grinned. “We asked them about their political affiliation and positions on several key issues, and a few psycho-demo variables, and they wound up looking like a representative sample of Vermont. Even checked out a control group.”

“Well, most folks in DC representing other states don’t seem to see things this way at all.” Jake looked at the pizza he had ordered. He suddenly realized how hungry he was. “There’s a surprising amount of confidence in our own economy, our own capacity to change. That’s the rhetoric, anyway.” He paused as he picked up his eating utensils, and continued hopefully, “Although – granted - opinion is split between those who see the loan deal as a good idea, along with all sorts of other progressive policies, and the majority, for whom the loan offer is like an apple from the snake.”

“That’s because the whole mainstream has been herded right where the Homelanders want them, everybody trying to outdo each other by sounding even more patriotic and evangelistic and pro-coal, pro-Fort McMurray, pro-nuke, pro-let’s-just-go-back-to-the old-days. Even though they don’t believe it.” Bill had an ironic sneer on his face. “It’s all symbolism. What kind of confidence do the Homelanders have in our ability to change with the help of good old pluralistic, liberal democracy? Not much!”

“Frankly,” said Jake, trying to ignore the nagging sense that he himself was bluffing, “I think the Homelanders are a mixed bunch, and that – collectively – their bark is worse than their bite. Sure, some clearly are fascists – the old gun-loving, racist survivalists, or Nazis – but from the pretty extensive contact I’ve had with the state delegations, most seem to be well-meaning religious fundamentalists who want to see the country unite around traditional conservative values, with democracy and the rule of law intact.”

“You sound like one yourself!” chuckled Zeller. “Better watch it! You may be talking about the representatives in DC, but what about their base? You trust them?”

“Look, Bill.” Jake knew he was going to sound shrill and frustrated, but he was too tired to suppress it. “I’m a fricking member of the Vermont Green Party. I’m our rep, for God’s sake. I’m just saying that it’s no good demonizing a label, a whole movement of people. We have to work with them, negotiate a future together. Deadlock and refusal to cooperate is a recipe for disaster. Homelanders aren’t infected with some disease! They aren’t possessed. They are a reaction to extreme times. I don’t trust them, but I trust the Constitution and our basic good will.”

Zeller became sober. “Sure, OK, I know what you’re saying. And I hope you’re right. I really do.” He took a long drink of his beer. “What worries me is that ultra-right-wing parties have never made it this far in American history before, and it’s not just an artifact of instant-runoff voting – conservative Republicans gone to seed, sort of… There are rumblings that bother me, too many loose ideologies and emotions bouncing around, too much real hardship to fuel the process, bitterness, disappointment, fear of foreign powers. Symbols gain terrible destructive power.”

“I agree it’s nuts,” said Jake. “This whole decade so far – you know, the past decade - has been symbolic posturing, and what should be straightforward logical choices about things like how you heat your house and how you produce healthy food and basic civil liberties have gotten lost in it, over and over.”

Zeller’s face turned more serious. “Old habits die very hard. We’re talking about gut values people acquired when they were kids. About the good guys versus the bad guys. The good guys are entrepreneurs, business heroes, the rugged individualists, the tough guys, the cowboys. Daddy. The kick-their-butts guys and gals. Sports heroes. The bad guys are the foreigners, the complainers, the tax-and-spend progressives, the alternative thisses and thats, the eggheads, the wimps.”

“What has never made sense to me, Bill, is why this red-state, blue-state stuff has never broken down in almost forty years. I mean, that’s it, isn’t it? This pattern of polarization.”

“Why should it break down? Aside from the fact that ‘it’ is part real, part media construct. And the Civil War almost two hundred years ago was a North-South conflict. Looks pretty stable.”

Jake toyed with his food. “You asked me why? Here’s why, in my mind: Science. Just the truth sinking in. The success stories where change worked out well… Realizing there’re no free lunches.” Zeller glanced at Christine, and winked. “I mean, it’s not like everyone is brainwashed.” Jake looked around, his hands gesturing an appeal. “You can go all over the world and see how both prosperity and quality of life - and democracy, too – are surviving the Emergency. Dogmatism is the last thing we need.” He cut a piece and snapped it up.

“You’re in the right party, dude.” Bill Zeller laughed. “And maybe Mama Science is loved in New England, bless her. But there are a lot of tired, poor, frightened, angry people out there in places like Denver and Dallas and Phoenix and Atlanta – people who lost their houses, their jobs, their self-respect, people who went from real estate agent or database analyst to sharecropper in a couple years, some time ago, now – and they want scalps. Foreigners, terrorists, and people who are just a little too ‘noo-anced’ are wearing the scalps they want.”

He put down his fork, and looked intensely at both of them, his face completely serious for once. “You know, what this country has been going through - really diving deep down into now - is the complete and utter re-ordering of who has, who doesn’t, who’s listened to, who’s ignored, who’s believed, and who’s not.. It all begins and ends with the availability of cheap fossil fuels. The world they made possible – the institutions, the infrastructure, the distribution of power – is finally vanishing right in front of us. Been predicted all our lives. We’re China when the West arrived. Japan. Cambodia in the 1970s. The Islamic countries when modernity hit. God help us avoid the convulsions they went through when everything stopped making sense. Which it did, years ago…” He took a bite of his omelet and chewed furiously.

“Bill,” said Christine carefully. “Why isn’t the conventionalist argument making more of a dent?” Zeller looked askance at her. She continued. “You know my own position, but the conventionalists, whenever they promote coal gasification or Alberta oil or nuclear or whatever, always seem to ultimately be saying that American ingenuity and our flexibility – adaptability - will make everything right again, and that no foreign loans and no direct government picking of winners is needed. Or even desirable.” She laughed without mirth, and added, “’Course there’s no sign of this happening.”

“Exactly!” Zeller almost shouted. “Disconnect! Making no dent. No dent! The same mantra over and over, yet no counterpart in reality. Superstition. The Energy Trust is nothing but a winner-picker, of course. Or status-quo-freezer. And the wind barons! Just regular old feudal lords. Bingo!”

Jake listened carefully, but said nothing.

“Christine,” continued Zeller. “You know what we were saying about symbolism? Listen, as far as I can tell, and dredge up from memories of lectures at Harvard and Chicago way back – and please note that there is woefully little public debate about this – there are two basic reasons. The first is the liquidity trap, the capital shortage. That’s not symbolic. It’s material. The hyperinflation makes money worthless. All savings are wiped out. All the money vanishes. No products or assets can be sold. Then you get deflation, and the government so far has hesitated to just print money because it will kick off hyperinflation again and make matters even worse. They want the loan package to create solidity, get productivity growing again, not just create speculative bubbles.” He gulped his water. “So anyway, good old American dollar-denominated entrepreneurial ingenuity can’t exactly thrive in this crisis. It needs help.”

Jake and Christine looked at him expectantly.

“Then there’s reason number two.” Zeller raised his eyebrows. “This may sound mysterious, or mystical, but this is the way I’ve come to see it… It’s like this: right now, rationality is basically worthless in America. It’s got no teeth. Nobody has any use for it beyond immediate, practical things. Reason has capitulated. This is what I meant about convulsions, about stopping making sense. If rationality said, ‘It’s raining and, logically, we should use an umbrella to stay dry’, but you believed right down to the bottom of your heart that rain was technically AND morally impossible – not just you, but you and millions of others, and had all your lives, and your career depended on believing that – then you would ignore your senses and reject that logic and just stand there, and… what?”

“What?” said Jake and Christine, surprised he had suddenly turned a question at them.

“What would you do?” demanded Zeller.

“Get wet,” said Jake. Christine laughed with a snort.

“Exactamundo!” Zeller smiled. “You’d get soaked. When things that make absolutely no sense start turning your life upside-down, you can’t rationally process them until your whole concept of rationality changes. Your paradigm. That doesn’t just happen overnight. Takes years, and deep personal crisis. Emotion! Denial. Breakdowns. Ruined lives. Death. Then, from the wreckage, come people who believe in rain. No big deal. Of course. Just a little rain! A little rain never hurt anybody! And when it rains, they just put up an umbrella. So simple. And then they look at the societies that couldn’t come to terms with AIDS or with climate change, or that fight the market economy, or democracy, or religious pluralism, or women’s rights, or ecological modernization, and ask with big, wide eyes, Why can’t they simply accept reality? What’s the matter with those people? They must be imbeciles! They don’t seem to grasp what any child knows.”

Zeller’s hand was clasped in a fist on the table. He came up for air, and dove in again. “Well, you know what? We’re ‘those people’ at the moment. And it ain’t just a trivial little puzzle, a minor bit of reality-acceptance that’s needed. America and the world need to grasp this. Then maybe some of the denial about what’s going on might dissipate. All that conventionalist pardon-my-French bullshit in Washington, and all that lend-them-some-money-and everything’s-going-to-be fine crap in Beijing and Brussels… You mark my words. America’s paradigm shift is going to continue being the cover story for the rest of this century, and only God knows what will get knocked down in the process…”

“Take Bart Ross, for example…” Christine managed to wedge an interjection into Zeller’s diatribe.

“Precisely. Good. Christine, take Ross. He’s a man pinned between rationality and ideology. Or two ideologies. One says, ‘America Right or Wrong. Just gotta believe. America creates any reality it likes, and the world accommodates.’ The other says, “Vermont can again be that mythical tidy democratic little independent republic it supposedly was way back between 1777 and 1791, doing things the smart and principled way.’ That ideology has always been around in Vermont, tucked away like a fairy tale that grown ups never admitted made them get a little weepy when they secretly re-read it from time to time. Like The Hobbit. Camelot. And – oh, yes – the rationality pinning him, or now pulling him, I guess, is his good common sense saying that what’s coming out of both the White House and the opposition parties and all their pundits and think-tankers just doesn’t add up. Just doesn’t fit the evidence all around us. Stops making sense. And…”

Zeller waved at the waiter for the check, and seemed to be almost physically winching himself out of his own monologue. But, for an instant he froze. He looked at Jake and Christine, who were listening raptly to this editor who had won prizes far and wide for his editorials and columns, and was now spinning a spoken-word editorial straight at them.

“… And, I happen to agree with him,” he said in conclusion. “Just look all around us. This isn’t OK. We can’t look the other way. We have to see what’s coming.”

But Jake wanted to know one more thing. “Bill, where’s the Governor in relation to all this?”

“You’ll find out soon enough,” chuckled Zeller. Jake’s face was a question mark. “Up in the hills.”

“Up in the hills?” repeated Christine with a dubious look. Jake waited. He looked at both of them expectantly.

“You doing anything this weekend, Jake?” Zeller looked at Jake with a poker face.

“Campaigning,” said Jake. “Reading.”

“Doing something,” said Christine firmly.

“Ah, well, there’s something else you’ll be doing, too.” The tone of Zeller’s voice became less cagey, more confiding. “I just heard about this myself.”

“Heard about what!?” demanded Christine. “We have a major family obligation Friday, by the way.”

“Governor Jeanne is calling a meeting. Expanding the guest list of those fall meetings she has every year up in the mountains. Check your email. I know she wants you there, Jake.”

“That’s news to me,” mused Jake. “Kind of short notice.”

“Something’s up, anyway,” said Zeller. “To answer your question, I’ve been asking myself the same question all year. She’s served since – what – ’32, and she’s always been moderate and fiscally responsible and stayed out of the limelight. A sort of stern, noncontroversial, boring, remote governor. The Emergency has favored Republicans like her, because it hasn’t been possible to expand government because there aren’t any resources for new programs – expect the police and military, of course. So government’s just kept shrinking and she’s had to keep fighting fires, which she’s pretty good at. She’s made it clear she wants nothing to do with either Homelanders, secessionists, or Greens and other progressives. Very middle-of-the-road. Good at pitting you all against one another.”

“I’m just glad she has steered an independent course,” said Christine. “She’s a republican with a little ‘r’, not one of those closet Homelanders. I trust her. She’s generated stability.”

“Mmmm,” replied Zeller. “I think your trust will soon be tested. I think some things are coming that will force her into the limelight. Then you’ll find what she really stands for.” Zeller looked at his watch. “Oops,” he muttered, and then to both of them he announced. “I need to get going. See you in a few days!”





22 – Petersburg, VA


Oct 25th:

“See how Bill’s started doing a little skip?” Grandma pointed down toward the horse’s right side. As Bill, who was harnessed to the left of the shaft, completed each trot cycle, he skipped almost imperceptibly to the right, jangling the tack and causing Belle to compensate slightly.

“I wouldn’t have even noticed that,” said Mike, surprised. He rubbed his eyes, feeling washed out from lack of sleep due to his indulgence in Vtopia the night before.

“I’m used to this team. You would if you knew them as well as I did.”

“So what’s it mean?”

“Bill’s back-right shoe is not sitting right. I keep cleaning out the hoof and trying to screw it back in place, but there’s a split developing and the bondex won’t hold it. Too much lateral shear.”

Mike held the reins more gingerly. “Think he’ll make it to Petersburg like that?”

“Not sure,” said Grandma. “I don’t want to push it because you let things like this go and you get infections, sores, all sorts of things. Founder, maybe, although I don’t have any first-hand experience with that. Let’s slow it down a little.”

Mike gave a tiny tug to the rains and called a low “whoa” as he’d heard Grandma do to decelerate. The speed of the trot dropped and the horses relaxed a bit. She looked at him with approval.

“What’s founder?” Mike asked.

“It’s when the hoof starts to come apart from the bone underneath, the coffin bone. The hoof is just one massive fingernail, or toenail. You know how people sometimes get infections and lose a fingernail? It’s a disaster if it isn’t caught in time. But founder has something to do with what horses eat, as well. Lots of lush, dewy grass apparently can bring it on.”

“Horses are vulnerable,” said Mike, dwelling on how dependent they were now on this team.

“Mmmm.” Grandma nodded. “But a lot of this comes from the breeding and lifestyles we humans impose on them, the work we make them do. There’s a price. I doubt wild horses have half the problems.”

They drove at the slower pace, warily studying Bill’s gait.

“I’m not a farrier,” Grandma continued, “and we need to get to one pretty soon. I have a name and address in Petersburg. They’ll need to work all the hooves over carefully, so we make it the rest of the way. Ought to get Belle and Sherbet re-shoed as well, for the final push. Did it on the way down in Richmond at a big stable I know. Nice place, wasn’t it, Fernando?”

Fernando nodded in agreement.

“We should call ahead,” said Mike.

“Yup, Mike. We should.” Grandma fished around in the duffel bag she kept up on the bench, and pulled out her small green book. “Douglas. There’s the number.” She picked up her cell phone and made a call. Mike eavesdropped idly, wondering about other vulnerabilities the horses might have. He thought about the flies. They sprayed the horses every morning and night, and hung repellant bulbs around them, from their harnesses and the shaft. But the flies kept appearing, especially when the sun was high.

“OK,” confirmed Grandma. “Said they could see us tomorrow morning at 7:30. Aren’t promising to be able to get it all in tomorrow, but it’s a start.”

“Seems like we ought to get anything like that fixed before this hurricane hits.” Mike spoke as he concentrated on keeping the horses at their slower-than-usual trot.

“Mm-hmm.” Grandma was also worried about the storm. It had just come ashore in southern Florida after sparing most islands in a route across the open ocean, but had turned north.

“Would you mind checking its status again?” Mike was worried by what seemed to be a kind of fatalism on Grandma’s part, a blasé acceptance. When he had suggested they drive inland a few days back, she had scoffed and failed to act. When he was posted to Alabama, and worked in Georgia, he had developed great respect for the new hurricanes. They could be unimaginably destructive. Perhaps she had just experienced so many hurricanes that one more did not seem like a big deal. He watched Grandma sideways as she navigated her lapscreen. Her face tightened as she studied the screen.

“What do you see?” he asked after several minutes of silence.

“Well, they’ve downgraded it to a Cat-2, and its eye has just exited the Georgia coast, heading northeast. Took the past twenty-four hours to transit Florida from the Keys to the northern state line. They’re saying it might intensify once out at sea, closer to the Gulf Stream. Hope it stays out there.” She scrolled through pictures, shaking her head. “My God… It just flattened parts of Miami. Hundreds dead in Florida, even in the bunkers. Nearly two feet of rain! They’re lucky they’re a flat state. Imagine what would happen with so much water dropping onto West Virginia or the Smokies…” She studied more photos. “This is hitting agriculture down there very hard. No more oranges for us for a while. It’s a huge storm. Three hundred miles across.”

Mike made a faint is-that-so noise. “We still have time to head inland, Grandma, away from all these lowland rivers. If it hits us and it’s still raining like that, all this will be flooded.” He nodded toward the flat, open fields they were passing through.

“Well,” said Grandma, “depends on when it overtakes us, if it does. We get on I-95 at Petersburg, so we’ll be on higher ground, on a better-built road with better drainage.”

“I hope water is the main problem. But the winds in this thing are terrific. I saw that the wind gusted to 180 when the eye passed Daytona Beach, and there were all sorts of tornadoes.”

“Mmm,” replied Grandma. “I suppose the wind has pretty much died down once they get up this far north.”

“When would it get here, if it did?” asked Mike.

Grandma studied the display some more, flicking the controls back and forth with her thumbs. “The most likely track sends it way out into the Atlantic. The next track down – 20% likelihood – has it coming right up the coast. Let’s see. This is Thursday. So it would be here Saturday sometime… We ought to be in Richmond.”

# # #

As the afternoon progressed, the air became increasingly still and balmy. A haze filled the atmosphere. It was as if a vast mass of stagnant air was damming up from the north, its movement cut off by the expansive hurricane’s vortex to the south. A premature dusk deepened shadows as they began to pass through the outer hamlets of Petersburg. The traffic increased – mainly bicycles and BD mopeds, but a growing number of carts and wagons with the odd cell-electric threading its way quietly through them. They already had their lights on.

Mike yawned, his head back against the bench. He had dozed for some time, unaware of how much time had passed. They were on good blacktop pavement, a rarity so far on this journey. Grandma drove, hunched slightly, eyes ahead. Mike sat up, and took a drink of water from his bottle.

“Wonder what’s happening with Hon,” he mused aloud.

“Thought I’d give her a call next time you drive,” answered Grandma.

“I guess she went to the market again today, alone. Mom’s available. Lot of work solo, though.”

“Yes,” said Grandma, “and Hon’ll either start running out of pickles and preserves – all high margin – or else not be able to get fresh produce out to the stall, which cuts way down on the traffic.”

“If there’s no van, how’s she getting the produce?” Mike knew the wholesale market was all the way over in Silver Spring, at least an hour from Hon’s house or White Flint, and that something more than a bike with a trailer was needed for a day’s stock.

“Oh, I’ve got Marcus helping her out. He’s taking our deliveries to Silver Spring with the Lancaster van, and then moving Hon’s things out to White Flint. Then, he’s been ghosting passengers and taking them down Wisconsin Avenue..”

“Can you really spare him?” asked Mike.

“Yes. We always do deliveries to Silver Spring, and he’s not always busy.”

“How come Hon and Sanna have that biodiesel, then? Seems they could save a lot by just doing a deal with you.”

“Ah, ha,” said Grandma. “Now you’re onto something. I have been suggesting this for a year. With a diesel vehicle to maintain and biodiesel at sixty dollars a gallon, you’d think they’d jump at it. Not everyone’s granny has a small fleet of delivery wagons. But you don’t know Sanna!”

“What about Sanna?” Mike inquired curiously.

“Ohhhh no. Sanna wouldn’t have it. Had to have their own biodiesel.”

“Why?” Mike thought he knew the answer already.

“You know,” said Grandma. “Status. Style. No horses to love and cherish. Plus, no dependency on Grandma. Absolute, grand, splendid independence!”

“What did Hon say about this?”

“In the beginning, she was sort of star-struck with Sanna. Sanna’s wild optimism and confidence impressed her. Felt like new hope was on its way, a bright future. But that kind of attitude gets no one anywhere. I think Hon’s changing her opinion. At least, I hope so, with what just happened.”

“Sound like Sanna’s approval rating ain’t improving,” said Mike, smiling and shaking his head.

Grandma turned toward him, and was about to reply when a sudden commotion just ahead in the oncoming lane diverted their attention. A man in the driver’s seat of a shabby, heavily laden open-bed wagon was yelling obscenities and arguing loudly with a small group of pedestrians beside him by the roadside. Beside him were two women and several small children, looking worried and embarrassed. A truck had slowed down behind him and was waiting to maneuver past.

“They couldn’t give a rat’s ass!” cursed the man, beside himself. “They know me here. I got relatives and spent half my time here as a frickin’ kid, goddammit!”

Mike and Grandma slowed, the horses now almost opposite the stopped wagon. The desolation on the face of the woman beside him and the tears in the children’s eyes were painful to look at.

“Other Triple-C towns let us through no problem, but these…” – his voice rose into a bark – “… these holy bastards wouldn’t even check, wouldn’t even look at my papers!”

Grandma leaned her head toward Mike’s. “You experienced with the Triple-C down where you were with the Corps?”

“Sure.” There were hundreds of towns and cities in the Commonwealth of Christian Communities now, with Fort Collins, Colorado as its Queen City. Most were in the South, Midwest, and Mountain states. “But there’s a whole spectrum. Some are low-key, just getting started. Others make everyone go to church, forbid evolution in schools, introduced mandatory Creed everywhere. Everything’s a sin.”

“Petersburg is one of the real strongholds, Mike. I forgot to mention that.”

Mike glanced back at the stopped wagon. The man was not shouting any longer. Maybe he had found sympathetic ears, someone to help. “They gonna give us any trouble?”

“No. I came through here on the way down, said the right things, praised the Lord, and everything was fine. Half the time it’s an excuse to keep out the drifting poor, which it looks to be in that situation over there.” Grandma sighed. “They see this wagon and the Maryland plates, and they’ll be just as pleasant as a peach. It’ll be ‘Ya’ll have a fine visit’, no worries.” She chuckled again, turned to Mike, and intoned quietly – because they were quite close to the stockade and gate now, and there were quite a few people around them waiting to pass through – “Very, very Christian people. Truly.” She winked.

“What about Plain Word towns?” Mike asked. There were none of those down where he had been working.

“I don’t believe they’re organized in this way. They don’t take over entire town governments, civil defense, and all.” Grandma paused, watching for movement in the traffic ahead. “Lynchburg is one of their strongholds – Remember that guy back in Columbia? – but Charlotte, Greenville, other places are big Elevener towns, too. Of course, they’re completely the opposite. There’s a lot of praying and vows of poverty and, yes, maybe it’s oppressive, but they do a lot of good works. Built a huge poor farm outside of Lynchburg – nice agricultural land, very productive. Called Grace & Mercy Farm. We’re seeing their produce up in the DC markets in the winter.” She nodded back at the scene of the altercation. “They’d take those folks, no problem. See ‘em as assets, recruits.”

Settling back to wait out the time it took to move the remaining fifty or so yards to the crowded gate, they regarded the southern entrance to Petersburg. Remarkable earthworks rose on either side of the road, extending in star formations on both directions. At the top of the earthworks were wooden stockades, with occasional watch towers topped by golden crosses. At this southeastern end of the city, there seemed to be a large expanse of open, intensively farmed land outside the stockade, with small groves of trees here and there well back from the fortifications. There were no buildings in this expanse, aside from barns and garden sheds - not even the empty pads of the original strip-mall development that surrounded to many cities.

“Those are some earthworks,” said Mike.

“I’ve wondered about them myself,” replied Grandma. “Seems to be the same all around the city’s core.”

“Looks like they’re getting ready for the Civil War again.”

“There was a big Civil War battle here. Maybe these are part of the original fortifications.”

Mike looked around and cocked his head. “I’ve visited some battlefields here and there. These look very new and well-maintained.”

“Well, they sure aren’t doing it for tourism. Who’d come? Maybe it’s historic preservation plus job generation.’

“God knows,” answered Mike. His jaw dropped. Just as he uttered those two words, brilliant spotlights were turned on immediately ahead, illuminating a huge statue directly in the middle of the road. Just inside the wide gate, where police were busy processing entering traffic, the road lanes divided fluidly around a head-high stone island topped by a thirty-foot metal statue of a sort of warrior-angel, its feet bristling with replicas of Civil War cannons. The statue was clad in shining armor and chain mail, a rounded helmet on his head with a nose guard that ended buried in a flowing mustache and beard. He held a massive sword in one huge hand, its point in the ground by his feet, and a tall, narrow shield in the other, propped in front of one impossibly muscular leg. His wings arched and spread above him, adding another twenty feet to the height. His eyes stared sternly down the road – right at them, and beyond.

Mike snapped his gaping mouth shut, and laughed at what he had just said. “Well, I guess he does!” He glanced at Grandma. “Who’s that?”

“Who do you think?” she asked dryly.

He wrinkled his brow, and shook his head. “God?”

“Good grief, boy!” Grandma looked genuinely irritated. “What the heck is the name of this city?”

“Petersburg.” Then it dawned on him. “Saint Peter. OK. Right. On this rock I will build my church, and all that.” He looked at the massive statue. “The Pearly Gates…” But then he screwed up his face and turned to his grandmother skeptically. “When I think of Saint Pete, I think of an old, portly angel looking people up in his big book, announcing who can enter heaven and who has to stay outside. This guy looks like a cross between Joan of Arc and King Arthur, on steroids. He’s ready for war. Plus, I wouldn’t expect wings, I guess…”

Grandma smiled ruefully. “I suppose he is preparing for war. He’s guarding this gate, anyway. Hmm.” They peered at the inscription at his feet, which read,

And I say to thee, thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. - Matthew 16:18

“Yes, certainly a warrior,” Grandma resumed. “Now, remember what you learned in Sunday school, and follow my cue.” They were almost at the gate. Then, the truck ahead was waived through almost casually, and it was their turn. A policeman in a broad-brimmed hat like a state trooper’s approached the driver’s side from their front, shining his flashlight around the team and under the wagon. He smiled up at Grandma and Mike, and stopped about ten feet from their wagon.

“Ma’am. Sir. How are you doing this evening?” he asked.

“Very well, officer,” replied Grandma politely. “Praise God.”

He ignored her invocation. “Your destination?”

“Bethesda, Maryland.” Not Chevy Chase, Mike noted. Chevy Chase was an incorporated village within Bethesda anyway, but Bethesda connoted something different: larger, more anonymous, less privileged.

“Where’re you comin’ from, folks?” The municipal policeman held up a retinal scanner for the obligatory glances as he spoke.

“We’ve been on the road for six days now, hauling our household up from the Outer Banks.” Grandma gestured at Mike, in the passenger’s seat, and continued primly, “This is my grandson, just retired as a captain from the Army.”

“Planning to stay here long?” Mike saw that other police were walking around the wagon, pointing flashlights at the cargo and underneath.

“No, officer. We plan to make a stopover tonight, see a farrier tomorrow, and head on up I-95. Unless that hurricane slows us down.”

“Any news on what you’re expecting here in Petersburg?” interjected Mike. “From the storm?”

“I believe they’re saying it’ll be off the coast up here, Captain. Lots of rain here, probably. Projection has it heading out to sea.” The policeman turned back toward Grandma. “What parish are you folks a member of, up there in Bethesda?”

“All Saints’ EA, officer.” Grandma smiled sweetly. “I’m on the vestry this year, running charitable giving.”

The policeman, who appeared to be fairly senior, raised an eyebrow and looked slightly perplexed. “I used to be in the DC police department, and I can’t say I recall that one.”

“Oh, yes. It’s right near Chevy Chase Circle – Western and Connecticut. Captain Mike here was christened there.” Mike knew exactly where she meant, but what did ‘EA’ mean?

The policeman’s face turned slightly derisory, and with a thin smile he said, “Oh, sure, I know where you mean… But that’s an Episcopal church,” almost spitting out the second syllable of the word “episcopal”.

Grandma was completely unfazed, still smiling as sweetly as syrup. “You must have retired from the DCPD a long while back, officer. All Saints’ has been evangelical Anglican for several years.”

The policeman glanced over at the gatehouse booth, where an assistant had apparently screened the cargo already. She signaled to him with a raised thumb. His expression brightened as he faced Grandma again, adopting a similarly sweet, approving tone. “Oh, why I’m sure that’s been appreciated very much up there.”

“Oh, why, yes. It very much has indeed. It was high time.” Grandma beamed.

“Well, good. Enjoy Petersburg this evening, get your horses seen to, and have a safe trip. You have a 24-hour pass. Let us know where you’re staying.” The policeman stepped back to let them pass, and the boom gate ahead rose to admit them to St. Peter’s sanctuary.

“Good evening, officer,” smiled Grandma. “God bless.” She prepared to take up the reins. Mike quickly put his hand on her arm. Her eyes met his in surprise.

“Wait, Grandma.” He turned to the policeman. Something struck him as odd, although his experience with Triple-C towns was limited. “Officer, is that normal? Only twenty-four hours?”

“Normal when a big storm’s nearby,” said the policeman. “Were you hoping to stay longer? Some special reason?” He sounded suspicious.

“Ah, no,” Mike responded. “But is this the way you deal with travelers when there’s bad weather? You don’t want travelers staying around too long when there’s a storm coming?” He pressed his question, slight irritation in his voice. “I’d think this would mean good business for the inns, campgrounds, restaurants, stores. Not to mention charitable and decent.” Should he have left this thought unsaid, he wondered.

The policeman narrowed his eyes, his tone stiffening. “You’re right, Captain, as far as ordinary bad weather goes, but that Rhiannon’s a cat-five, and even if it’s far off and not headed this way, we’re not taking chances. Until the danger’s past.”

Years of accumulated observation of disaster preparedness and response had left their impressions on Mike. Minimizing disturbances to life and commerce from all the storms and floods of late had become the primary function – preoccupation, even - of the Corps. Resources were stretched all around, but things always worked best when both Federal agencies and cities and towns provided refuge to the vast populations that could no longer move out of harm’s way.

“Sir, I used to work quite a bit with this sort of thing, in the COE, so excuse my curiosity here… Are you saying that travelers passing through need to be out by the time – if, that is – a hurricane hits, but that locals can find refuge?” Mike smiled and tried to look disarming, keeping his ire in check. Grandma’s face was tense, impassive.

“Only if they’re city residents, Captain. Resident within the city limits.”

“Where does everyone else go?” asked Mike. Grandma breathed sharply, betraying her exaspiration.

“Wherever they go,” said the policeman. “There are a few hurricane bunkers around here. One up near Midlothian, for example. Some folks have their own defenses.”

“I see,” said Mike. “Some sort of city ordinance?”

“Some sort, sir,” said the policeman. They stared at each other in stalemated silence for a heartbeat. Then the policeman stepped back, and called impatiently to the cart behind them: “Next vehicle!”

Grandma clucked to the team, and they started rolling. The policeman nodded at them, his expression cold, and fell behind the moving wagon.

When they were clear of the gate, moving alongside mighty St. Peter, Mike whistled and shook his head. “What the hell is going on these days?! That’s just going to make things worse for everybody.”

“What I want to know is what the heck you were thinking!” Grandma was irritated with Mike. “I got him sweet about our religious affiliation, and then you have to start asking funny questions.”

Mike grimaced at the sting of her criticism. “Well, what Petersburg is doing IS odd, for sure – all the control and exclusion – but I couldn't let that one alone.”

“Keep the authorities happy in a place like this. You don’t want them surly or suspicious. You’re not in the Army anymore, for goodness sake. You’re just another poor civ driving a wagon. Skip the activism, grandson.”

“This stuff is illegal, you know.” Mike was angry. “Modest civil defense and controlling crime are one thing, but controlling trade, kicking out the poor, refusing to give people shelter from big storms, and making travelers pass some sort of religious test is definitely against federal law.”

Grandma sighed. “Sure, you’re right. But is the Federal Government trying to stop it? Uphold the free flow of interstate commerce? Rule the land. No. They’ve got enough other more basic things to worry about. This is about self-preservation at the local level. You think the Feds provide them with any money, or weapons?” She laughed, and then clucked at the horses to draw their attention back to the road from some distraction. “OK, some places go too far. But Petersburg’s not unusual, in my experience, for around here. They may feel cocksure down here for some reason, but maybe with too much of this, they’ll be shooting themselves in the foot. They’ll have to be careful.”

“That probably explains why that family wasn’t let in… Boy, things have really changed up this way. I thought Alabama and Georgia were bad.” Mike paused, and then continued with gentle indignation, “And your All Saints’ business. What was that?”

“Oh, all of that’s true. The church did change its name a couple years back, to stay religiously correct.” Grandma lowered her voice and winked at him. “But it’s still the good old Anglican Church, just flying below the radar now. No talking in tongues, healings, or that sort of thing. Very low key.”

“And you’re on the vestry?” This seemed very much out of character for his grandmother, seldom given to volunteering or to congregational socializing.

“I joined just before I took this trip, sweetie!” She laughed. “Seemed like the thing to do.”

Copyright Ralph Meima 2009-2012