Sneak Peek: One Year After by William R. Forstchen

One Year After by William R. ForstchenOne Second After was a dire warning of what might be our future…and our end. Now, One Year After returns to the small town of Black Mountain, and the man who struggled so hard to rebuild it in the wake of devastation-John Matherson. It is a thrilling follow-up and should delight fans in every way. We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

CHAPTER ONE

DAY 730

“Daddy, I’ve been drafted.”

John Matherson, who had endured so many shocks in life, sighed, wearily sat back in his office chair, and looked up at his daughter Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s eyes revealed an aging far beyond her eighteen years, as did the eyes of nearly all of her generation. As a boy, John would gaze at the photo books about World War II; how hard it was to believe that the “old men” in the pictures really were just eighteen and nineteen … their eyes, however, revealed the inner torment of all that they had endured, features haunted and remote. They were no longer kids that should still be in high school or freshmen in college … they had aged a lifetime, often within a matter days, and as one author described them, they were “forever aged far beyond their precious years of youth.”

“Sit down, sweetheart.” He sighed, motioning to the far side of his desk in the town hall of Black Mountain, North Carolina, of what he hoped was still the United States of America. His desk was piled high with all the paperwork he had to deal with as the town administrator, all of it handwritten or punched out on an old Underwood typewriter.

In the terrible months after the Day, he had finally taken on something of a dictatorial position under martial law. As some semblance of stability finally returned within the last year, he gladly surrendered those powers back to a town council. Regardless of the loss of electricity and a national infrastructure, one thing did appear to hang on—paperwork—and as town administrator, he was stuck with the job. He often looked longingly at the dead computer in the corner of his office, a relic of a bygone world that now simply gathered dust, just as the Underwood typewriter—half forgotten in a closet for years—had before their world was turned upside down.

His former hyperclean world of daily or twice-daily showers on hot summer days, starched white shirts with clean collars, and dress shoes instead of worn boots had been replaced by once-a-week baths in a kitchen basin on Saturday night with a once-weekly, slightly bloody shave using a straight razor scavenged from an antique store to prepare for church on Sunday. Clothes were washed by hand in the creek that trickled down behind his house, and the collars of all his shirts were beginning to fray and were permanently stained with grit and sweat.

John’s brave new world had a grimy, battered edge to it. As a historian, he used to wonder what life 150 years earlier actually did smell like, look like, feel like. He was living it now, where a crowded room during a meeting on a warm spring evening had a distinctive musky, gamy smell to it, and folks who once wore jackets and ties or neatly pressed dresses now showed up in worn jeans and wrinkled, faded shirts. Sunday was the one day of the week when people did try to scrub up, though unless someone in the household was handy with an old-fashioned needle and thread, most wore suits and dresses several sizes too big. Their appearance made him think of the old daguerreotypes of a bygone era. It was rare to see someone overweight in those old photographs. Most had a lean, sinewy look, and their clothing, on close examination—except for the wealthy—a well-worn look.

His office in the town hall had that same worn feel to it. Gone were the scents of antiseptic scrubbing and buffing, brilliant fluorescent lights on day and night, fresh coffee from a machine that would take a dollar bill, air-conditioning in summer, and electric heat in winter. All of it gone ever since the Day.

Elizabeth still struggled to maintain some semblance of freshness with a semiclean college T-shirt and jeans and a red ribbon tied to her dark, nearly black ponytail. Her wiry frame was typical of everyone, her jeans belted in tightly around her narrow waist. What little extra weight she had put on when carrying Ben a year ago was long gone

She put a crumpled piece of paper onto his desk and pushed it across to him. He opened it up and spread it out, quietly rubbing his jaw.

He, like everyone else, had heard rumors about an impending draft to be issued by a remote and seldom-heard-from national government that had evacuated Washington, D.C., and now functioned out of an old Cold War bunker system in northern Virginia. The vague rumors had become true with this single sheet of paper his only surviving daughter placed on his desk.

He looked up at her again. She was eighteen, had seen war and starvation, and was already a mother, the father of her child killed in the fight against the invading Posse that had attacked their community a year and a half earlier. In so many ways, she did look like those long-ago photographs of eighteen-year-old veterans of Normandy and Iwo Jima, aged far beyond their years. But this was his daughter, his only child. He could still see the face of the newborn, the eyes of her long-deceased mother, the eyes that would well up with tears when she came for comfort for a skinned knee, the sparkling eyes of a laughing twelve-year-old, the knowing gaze of a sixteen year old who knew that with a glance and a smile she could still con her “daddy.” . Like all parents who across the years had gazed into the eyes of their children, whom the government suddenly declared were old enough to fight and to die, his heart was filled with fear. They were taking his child away, most likely never to return.

He gazed at the paper will motioning again for her to sit down.

As she settled into the chair by the side of the desk she offered a gesture a bit uncharacteristic since she had grown up—reachingout to take his hand while he gazed down at the letter.

“Greetings, Fellow Citizen, and by order of the President of the United States of America…”

The president?

The president of the United States. He still thought at times of the one who was in office on “The Day.” No. Word was that the White House had received some forewarning of the attack, scrambled the President out of DC aboard Air Force One … but amazingly, the plane was not sufficiently “hardened,’ against a high level EMP and went down somewhere over West Virginia. The President now? There was actually some debate, a junior senator out West claiming he was the legitimate successor, but most, especially survivors in the East, acknowledging a junior cabinet member headquartered in Bluemont, Virginia. The letter was the standard formula, reminiscent of draft letters of long-ago conflicts, ending with the forceful statement that she was to report to the office of the “federal administrator” in the Buncombe County Courthouse within three days for induction into the Army of National Recovery—or face the full penalty of the law.

He finished it and then quickly reread it. He was tired after having sat through a night rotation of watch duty, and he rubbed his eyes as he looked at Elizabeth, who sat across from him. No tears on her face, no hysteria, no reaction.

The federal administrator in Asheville. That must be this new official, Dale Fredericks, who had moved into Asheville a month or so earlier to replace the full battalion of regular army troops, which had quartered there over the previous winter but were then ordered to move out and head for Texas.

John found the regular army unit to be of tremendous help with attempting to reorganize the region, opening up some lines of communication with radio gear brought back from overseas deployment, their technicians even helped local ham radio operators to fix their equipment and establish some semblance of a network. They had been helpful as well with at least containing some of the raider groups known collectively as reivers, an old Scot/Irish term for outlaws.

 

As the army pulled out, the replacements arrived with little fanfare, though word viaa helicopter from distant Charleston, South Carolina. A printed notice had arrived for John from the postal courier from Asheville, announcing their arrival and that in the near future he would be contacted along with other community leaders for a meeting to discuss reorganizing the communities of western North Carolina. This was again welcoming news given the continued trouble with border raiders from north of the Mount Mitchell range, who were calling themselves reivers, but after that notice, nothing else … until today.

And now, this first notice of reestablishing the entity that all spoke of with pride and nostalgia—the United States of America—had come as a draft notice from some distant entity to take his Elizabeth away. I’ve lost one child, he thought. Dear God, not another.

His thoughts drifted to Jennifer, Elizabeth’s younger sister who had died when the so-taken-for-granted medical supply system of America had collapsed and insulin was no longer available. For want of a few vials of insulin, his youngest had died in his arms. That was part of his life he blocked off to keep his sanity. No parent should ever have to bury his child, but he had. He kept his gaze on Elizabeth even as he hid his thoughts about Jennifer, attempting to maintain a calm, even exterior.

He looked at her, trying to collect his thoughts. I’m her father. This is my eighteen-year-old daughter who should still be a kid, not a young mother about to be drafted. He shook his head and then forced a reassuring smile and tossed the document back across the table.

“Ridiculous. You’re a mother of a fourteen-month-old baby. That’s always been a draft deferment.”

“Not anymore, Daddy. You didn’t read it carefully,” she replied, taking the letter from his hand and turning it over. In this age of paper shortages, the document was printed on both sides, front and back. He had actually forgotten to turn the single sheet of paper over to read the addendum.

“By executive order during this national emergency,” she read in a flat, emotionless monotone, “all prior grounds of deferment have, as of this date, been waived, except for demonstration of severe physical disability. Those mobilized with dependent children must find suitable placement for their dependents. Failure to do so will result in punishment as outlined in Emergency Executive Order 303.”

He reread the line and it chilled him. He remembered hearing about Order 303. It gave the right of a government official to invoke capital punishment. He had executed people in the months after the Day, starting with the two drug thieves, with no executive orders other than the decision of the town to support such draconian measures during a time when the survival of the town was at stake. He had wrestled with those decisions then; he still did in his nightmares. As he looked up at his daughter, though, the irony did strike him that she was subject to such, as well.

She handed the page back to him.

“This came in with the morning mail from Asheville?” he asked.

“Yup, and I’m not the only one. Mabel at the post office said there were notices for 113 with the overnight post from Asheville.”

“You sure of that—113?”

“Yes, Daddy.” There was now a slight touch of a scared girl in her voice. “I ran up here to tell you. A crowd is already gathering at the post office, and they are definitely not happy.”

He took that in, stood up, and went out the door to the next room where the town’s telephone operator was on duty.

“Jim, would you patch me in to Mabel?” he asked, and then he returned to his office and picked up his old-style phone.

A retro 1930s telephone switchboard, taken from the local museum down on State Street, had been rigged up in the town hall. “Long distance,” as it was once called, now meant a call to Asheville to the west and Old Fort to the east, though there was talk that Morganton, forty miles off, had managed to pulled together enough copper wire to run a line to them. His phone jangled a ring familiar from his childhood, and he picked it up.

“United States Post Office. Mabel Parsons speaking.”

He smiled. She held to the old rituals even though she was the only one who ever worked at the post office, which, beyond its old traditional service, had become something of the town center for news and gossip.

“John Matherson here. How you doing, Mabel? Your husband feeling better?”

“He stabilized out yesterday afternoon, John; thanks for pushing through that request for antibiotics. We really owe you one.”

“Sure, Mabel. The kids at the college are starting to turn out a surplus in their chemistry lab, so no problem.”

“So why are you calling, John? Certainly not to check on George’s health.”

He could sense the challenge in her voice. Mabel was not someone to mince words with.

“Okay, Mabel. My daughter Elizabeth just walked up here from your office with this draft notice thing. Said a whole bunch of them came in with the Asheville mail delivery. What the hell is going on?”

“I sorted through 113 of them, John. You know I’m not supposed to discuss other people’s mail. Old post office pledge and all that. But, yup, I’m sticking them in the mailboxes right now. I think it’s okay to tell you that it looks like half the notices are for kids still living up at the college; the rest are from town who are being called into this ANR thing.”

“I’ll be right down,” John replied and hung up without waiting for a reply. Again he glanced toward his daughter. He was supposed to be the arbitrator and leader for the entire community, but at that moment, regardless of his overall responsibilities and long years of training and service in the military, the issue in his heart was about his daughter, his one remaining child, a mother herself. It was about his blood, his child, the way any parent would react.

He rubbed the stubble on his chin. It was Saturday morning. Tonight, his wife, Makala, would shave him with an old-fashioned straight razor, an art he had never mastered. Perhaps it was her years as a senior nurse in a cardiology unit that gave her confidence with a blade. Throw-away safety razors were indeed a thing of the past.

After a long night of watch duty, he felt grubby and unkempt, and beyond that, his jaw ached from the damned tooth that had started troubling him the month before. Makala had at last talked him into enduring a dreaded visit to the town dentist later and then a bath in the creek and a good shave afterward, followed by relaxation on his day off from duty. But all that had to wait as he looked at Elizabeth.

“Come on, kiddo, let’s get going.”

“Can I drive, Daddy?” Elizabeth asked as they left his office, holding out her hand and offering a smile, the sight of which warmed his heart. A touch of the old days of a teenage daughter conning a father with a smile as she requested the family car.

The 1958 Edsel, once the proud possession of his mother-in-law, had become the highly recognizable official car for John Matherson. It was increasingly a source of guilt, as well. Having moved to Montreat after his home was destroyed during the battle with the Posse, he now lived two and a half miles from the town office. At times, especially on beautiful spring and autumn days, he enjoyed the walk. After all, there was a time when for anything less than several miles, everyone walked until the advent of the auto. But more than once while he took his time walking to the town hall, taking an hour each way, something serious that needed his immediate attention had transpired. So after much official wrangling and arguing, the town council insisted he accept a ration of five gallons of gasoline a week, enough for seventy-five miles.

There was still a reserve of a couple of thousand gallons in the underground tank for city vehicles, carefully doled out. As for gas taken from abandoned cars, it was increasingly useless, breaking down over time, though the town’s Volkswagen man, Jim Bartlett, claimed he was developing a formula to make that fuel useable.

Having the Edsel strictly for business use was a luxury that still hit his guilt nerve, and whenever he did see someone walking in or out of town, he’d pull over to give a lift to assuage that guilt.

“We’re walking, Elizabeth. It is exactly half a block from here to the post office.” He set off with a long-legged stride befitting his six-foot-five frame, glad to breathe in the morning air after a long night’s watch in the town hall. While heading out, he told Jim where he would be and asked him to tell Reverend Black, who was coming on duty, that the night had passed quietly for once.

There had been rumors that the Mount Mitchell border reivers were again prowling along the northern edge of his community. The Stepp families, who lived up along the edge of the towering mountains, were complaining constantly about missing chickens and hogs … though of course they were mum about their moonshining operations and surreptitious trading with those same reivers that at times degenerated into violence. At times, he didn’t know if he should be blaming the Stepps rather than the outsiders. But at least this night had passed without incident or vendetta raids.

Leaving the parking lot of the town hall complex of administrative offices, fire department, and police station behind, John and Elizabeth crossed State Street, which had once been a main thoroughfare. The ice storm of the winter before had finally taken down the darkened traffic light. The bank across the street, long abandoned, had burned the year before, the once-prosperous building now an empty shell. The chamber of commerce and visitors’ center for tourists on the other corner ironically was still intact, though the thousands of brochures advertising local attractions had of course been looted out for basic fundamental use. A roll of the original material that the brochures had replaced was worth far more than its weight in silver or the standard medium of exchange—ammunition. It was yet another one of those things hardly anyone thought to stockpile before things went down.

As soon as they crossed the street, he regretted the decision to come down here. About 150 years earlier, the village post office was the community gathering place, fitting a Norman Rockwellish image of the potbellied stove, the local village philosophers and rubes gathered within trading gossip and news, waiting for the morning mail and news from afar over a game of checkers.

Mabel had taken her job to heart; she had been assistant postmistress. For a year, she had little if anything to do, but once the army had for a short time set up headquarters in Asheville, a trickle of mail had indeed started to come in, increasing in flow until, thrice weekly, an actual courier had come from the “big city.”

Delighted to be back to work, Mabel—with the help of her husband, George—had installed a woodstove in the foyer, set out a couple of checkerboards and a chess set, and did a thriving entrepreneurial business on the side with her fresh-baked corn bread that she brought in every morning, as well as herbal teas from various roots and sprouts. John decided to just turn a blind eye to the fact that her special medicinal corn bread for those who needed medication for pain management had been illegal in most states, except Colorado, prior to the Day.

And so the post office was again a community gathering place for the local rubes, philosophers, and more than a few community wags, especially on cold winter days and rainy spring days when there was little work to be done in the fields.

Before he was even across State Street, John was spotted by the ever-increasing crowd milling about the post office, most obviously in an angry mood, and—like any crowd in a democracy—they were looking for someone to vent their anger on, and John was the obvious target. He took a deep breath and pressed on.

Several tried to waylay him, and he turned on his most disarming smile.

“Hey, whatever it is, my daughter is caught up in it too. Let me talk to Mabel, and I’ll be right back out.” He he announced while trying to slip his way through the crowd.

Even as he spoke, he saw Ernie of the infamous Franklin clan clattering up in his battered four-wheel-drive off-road vehicle. Word of the draft notices was spreading like wildfire, and he wished Mabel had called him the moment the morning mail delivery from Asheville had come in so he could prepare a response. He spotted his old neighbor and friend Lee Robinson in the crowd and hurried over to him.

“Lee, if you could ask folks to just wait outside,” he implored.

Lee’s ancestors had settled the valley over two hundred years earlier, and four of them had fought in, as Lee said, “the War of Southern Independence.” For John, Lee was the embodiment of this precious valley, representative of all that was best of its traditional, down-to-earth character, a man of moral strength and a cherished neighbor. His son Seth, who was a couple of years older than Elizabeth, had kept a watchful eye on her like an older brother and had passed along his approval of Ben, the boy Elizabeth had fallen for who became the father of her son, while Lee’s youngest daughter had been Jennifer’s best friend. Both he and Lee harbored the hope that perhaps someday the two would notice each other in a different way.

Lee nodded and John .” motioned for Elizabeth to stay with his friend as hewent into the back of the post office.

Mabel held the place down on her own. There was no more door-to-door rural mail delivery service, of course; folks had to come into town to pick up the occasional letter or notice that came from the outside world. There had actually been something of a celebration at the office a month earlier when a letter had arrived all the way from Indiana. It was a mystery how it had even gotten through, addressed to Abe and Myra Cohen from their daughter, a student up at Purdue. She had survived the Day, married, and Abe and Myra were now grandparents of twins.

On the Day, so many families had been cut off from children attending distant colleges, husbands and wives on business trips, elderly parents off on vacation. Only a handful had made it back in the days and weeks afterward. To have been down in Raleigh or Atlanta on the afternoon of the attack had placed so many beyond the pale, never to be heard from again. So on any day when word spread that a delivery had come in from Asheville, the post office filled up with those still holding hope of news from the distant outside world.

Beyond being the postmistress, Mabel had learned to be a professional counselor, as well … a shoulder to cry on when the mail slot was again empty. Word from distant loved ones, news of the outside world, a place to gather and share local news and gossip—this was Mabel’s domain; she offered a place to share moments of happiness, to console in sorrow, to offer encouragement, and to hope that at least some of the old traditions still worked … and she cherished it all. But not today.

Before he could even get one word in, Mabel authoritatively held up her hand. “Yes, John, I know—perhaps it was a mistake letting those letters out before tipping you off. Maybe I should have called you first before sorting and sticking the letters in mail boxes. It wasn’t until your daughter opened it here that I even knew what it was, but by then, it was too late; word was out.”

John sighed, looking at the hundreds of small postal boxes from Mabel’s side of the world inside the mail sorting room, morning sunlight filtering through the tiny glass windows, illuminating the darkness within. The blue-tinted envelopes were in more than a hundred slots.

“Pull them out,” John said. “I need time to deal with this.”

Mabel shook her head firmly, a withering glance telling him he had overstepped when it came to her august employer, the USPS.

“John, you might run this town even after you’ve resigned from that martial law routine, and in general, folks agree with nearly everything you’ve done. But not in here.” She braced herself up to all of her five-foot-two-inch frame and looked up at him towering over her. “I used to be an official employee of the United States Postal Service, and by heaven, I was proud of that. Remember that book some years back and the wretched movie made afterwards about how the postal service reunites America after a disaster like the one we had for real? That stupid movie was something of a cult favorite with us postal workers … Folks used to joke about us and our job—‘going postal’ and stuff like that. But we did make things run, and damn it, John, don’t get between me and my work now, or you’ll have the United States Postal Service to answer to!”

She nearly shouted the last words.

“Okay, Mabel, I’m backing up.”

..

“And remember this for good measure: I am required by the law that used to exist to ensure the proper posting of mail without censorship, and please don’t try to stop me.”

John gazed at her, ready for a frustrated retort when she pushed that final point in, but she defused the moment by exhaling nosily and then offering the flicker of a friendly smile.

“Sorry John. Now that I know what is in those envelopes I’m as upset as anyone. One of them is addressed to my son-in-law. Just like you there are times I hate the job I have to do, but I do it anyhow, the same as you.”

John made the gesture of stepping forward again, leaning over to offer a friendly kiss to her forehead and she gave him a hug, the situation defused.

Even as he stood there, he saw one of the glass doors opening. It was Ernie Franklin, elbowing his way past Lee Robinson, and sure enough, seconds later, there was an explosion of expletives from the foyer.

“Now I got to deal with it,” John finally replied, wearily shaking his head, looking back down at Mabel.

She sighed, reached out, and took his hand. “Hey, I’m just the Greek messenger, as they used to say, so don’t shoot me.” She hesitated, now a bit embarrassed, because in his former career which was essentially that of dictator, he had indeed shot more than one person. “Sorry,” she fumbled, red faced.

He smiled. “I know what you mean, and no insult taken, Mabel. It used to be a popular metaphor for the bringer of bad news—and this morning, it is bad news.”

“My God, John. I owe you everything for what you helped to do with George, pushing the town to release some antibiotics for that last bout of pneumonia. But I’m sorry—if things are to one day work out, I have to do my job, the same as you do.” She hesitated, gulped, and stepped back slightly. “I can’t stop you from pulling those envelopes out of the mailboxes, but if you do, you will have lost my respect, John.”

How could he respond to that challenge? And now more and more of the mailboxes were being pulled open. Ernie was continuing his expletive-laden tirade and whipping up a potential explosion, right in the lobby of the post office.

“Well, it’s already out there, Mabel,” he replied, pointing to the boxes.

She stepped back closer and again squeezed his hand. “You’re the leader in this town, John. You’ll manage somehow; you always do.”

“Yeah, sure,” he said, shaking his head. He looked at the mailboxes and at the friends and neighbors gathering on the other side.“Damn it, Mabel,” he said, forcing a friendly smile. “At least next time, give me a call first so I can either figure out what to do first, or…” His voice trailed off, and he didn’t add, Or find a place to hide.

How often, from the very first days, had he wished he could do just that as he opened the door and stepped back out into the foyer.

Ernie Franklin was, of course, immediately in his face. Though in his midseventies, he radiated a definite “don’t ever mess with me” aura. Head of what all called “the Franklin clan,” who lived on the far side of Ridgecrest. Some had defined them as survivalists even before the Day. Ernie and his wife had, prior to the war, been tech heads—programmers starting way back in the 1960s. He had proudly let everyone know that he and his wife Linda had written some of the software for Apollo and the shuttle programs. Foreseeing the future, which finally did happen, he had bought up a hundred acres of mountain and built his fortresslike retirement home at the edge of town. It was well stocked with food, that obviously was still supplying his “clan,” which now included a couple of sons, their families, a daughter and a reclusive author who had come into their lives before “The Day.”, They had survived on their own since the first day, never requesting rations or help from the town. On the day of the cataclysmic battle with the marauding Posse, the enemy’s flanking attack had swept along the edge of Ernie’s property but then shied back when confronted by an explosion of automatic weapons fire. Indirectly, his clan’s efforts had contributed to the town’s victory by forcing the enemy to funnel in along a narrow hiking path rather than using an old logging road which would have flanked his own position along the Ridgecrest heights and the Baptist conference center. As a result the main battle had been fought along Interstate 40, but whenever possible, Ernie let everyone know on a regular basis that whether part of the organized fighting force or not, his clan had played a crucial role in the battle and deserved recognition.

And now he was ready to unleash on John, and he did so in no uncertain and most definitely scatological language. John long ago learned to let him vent until he finally took a deep breath.

Finally, Ernie relented, breathing hard, and John held his hand up.

The foyer of the post office was packed, and given the level of sanitation all now lived with, it was a bit rank. He had always been sensitive to smells, something his boot camp drill sergeant picked up on and had made sure John’s job was to scrub out the barrack’s bathroom after the first round of use in the morning, with John usually vomiting up his breakfast while he worked. After two years, the natural scents of his irregularly washed neighbors had become something of a background norm, but it still troubled him at times.

“How about we all step outside?” John offered. “Let’s sit down, take a deep breath, and talk about this. Could you help me with that, Ernie?”

Caught a bit off guard by John’s standard maneuver to ask someone to help him, especially in a moment of crisis the response was almost always the same. Ernie muttered an agreement and motioned to the door as if he were in charge——and the crowd followed him out.

As they stepped outside, John saw Ed, the police chief, who had most likely been summoned by Jim at the switchboard and had come down from the town office to keep an eye on things. John made eye contact and gave him a subtle hand gesture to just relax and walk away as if nothing was amiss. In this new world of theirs, everyone walked about armed. John always kept a light Ruger concealed in his pocket; most of the neighbors present had a rifle or shotgun casually slung over the shoulder or cradled under an arm. But Ed was the town’s armed authority, and he did not want to convey the slightest concern that he might need armed support to this ever-growing and angry crowd.

More than a hundred were now gathered, many clutching the draft notices for themselves or their children and kin, and John made it a point to let people see that he had one in his hand. Folks began to sit down along the curb, leaning against the odd assortment of old vehicles folks had retrofitted to function again after the EMP burst had blown out the electronics. Several of the cars had huge canvas bags strapped to the roof to store the gas from the charcoal burners that Mabel’s husband had figured out could actually power a car … just barely but enough at least to drive around town and out to the fields which were now their farmlands.

He cleared his throat and motioned for a moment of silence. That had become traditional with town meetings, formal and informal. If Reverend Black were there, there would have been a prayer, nonsectarian, an appeal for guidance and calm, but without his presence, there would just be silence for a moment.

John finally cleared his throat again and spoke. “I have no answers for you.”

“Well, that is one helluva start!” Ernie interjected sarcastically.

John looked over at him and held his hand out in a calming gesture. “Just let me say my piece, and then we’ll all have a chance,” John offered, and he saw that he had the support of the rest of the group.

Ernie reluctantly nodded and went to sit in the driver’s seat of his Polaris.

“My daughter Elizabeth got the same letter the rest of you got to report in three days for mobilization into this Army of National Recovery that we’ve been hearing about. We kind of knew that this draft would sooner or later be at our doorsteps—and today, it is. I’m asking that we hold our tempers for now. I’ll go into Asheville, talk to this new federal administrator that came in last month, Dale Fredericks, and see what he has to say, since chances are it came out of his office. I’ll call him right now and let him know I’m coming.”

He looked up at the sky and then back at the crowd. “Weather looks good for today.” His next move was definitely a calculated one on his part—some would say even cynical manipulation, others one of the basic principles of leadership. “Some of the boys at the college actually managed to get a wild boar night before last after trying to lure it in for weeks. They’re butchering it even now, and our friend Pete of barbecue fame is helping them. Rather than salt it down or smoke it, let’s just indulge ourselves this evening. I’ll ask Pete if he can get a roasting pit going right now in the town square. Ernie, maybe you and some others could help. How about we have a community meeting—say, at six—and I’ll have more information then and a bit of a meal, as well? It won’t be Pete’s finest pulled pork, but it should still be pretty good. And no ration cards for this. It’s time to celebrate after spring planting and all the good weather we’ve been blessed with.”

“Cook something like that takes days,” Ernie interjected. A glance from John, though, to at least give him a break on this point had its effect. “Yeah, ok John., We’ll help Pete try to make the pig somewhat edible and ready for the meeting tonight when I’m sure you’ll return with some damn good answers,” Ernie replied.

There were outright cries of delight from those who were still trying to just barely get by on the public rations. A meal of real meat, no matter how tough, was always a lure and a promise.

“But before you go John I have something to say first,” Ernie announced, but John held up his hand.

“As I said before Ernie, I know nothing more than the rest of you.I want to get that call in now and get on the road. Is that all right with all of you?”

John dreaded such informal sidewalk meetings. Everyone felt they had to have their say, and it would drag on for hours. His nature was such that he wanted to get the real information and get it now, sort it out, and then deliver the hard message as quickly as possible. He wondered if this mobilization of his community’s fittest and healthiest young men and women had more behind it than just simply a call-up for national service, such as what happened in the Second World War. He could see already from those who were waving the blue envelopes the community’s most able-bodied, who were the backbone of their town’s defenses and hardest workers in the fields, were the first to be called.

Copyright © 2015 by William R. Forstchen

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