Chapter 3 - Fairfield
Jason awoke to the sounds of gentle sobbing. He sat up and attempted to rub the crick out of his neck from sleeping on the hard ground, before looking for the source of the crying. He found Tammy Jenkins sitting against the rotting house with her knees pressed up against her chest. She quickly wiped the tears away as she noticed Jason approaching.
“I’m sorry if I woke you up,” Tammy said meekly, wiping her nose with her sleeve.
Jason waved off her apology, “I wasn’t getting shit for sleep anyways on that damned ground,” he said, softly grinning. “How ya doing?” he asked gently while sitting down beside her.
“It’s just that when I woke up this morning and I saw that I was still here, I knew this was real and not a dream. I had convinced myself that I’d be getting woken up in my own bed by my five-year-old demanding breakfast, like most mornings. But all I got was a mouthful of dead grass and a sore neck,” she added sourly.
Jason nodded as he remembered having the same hope himself the night before. Of course, in his scenario he was getting woken up by his beautiful wife, who ironically would probably be demanding breakfast as well. He forced down a smile at the thought of Beth so as not to confuse Tammy by his expression.
“I’m scared for my family. Where’s my husband? Where’s my little boy?” she pleaded with Jason as if he had the answers. “The thought of him waking up like we did, confused and frightened, drives me crazy. I’m a mother that’s powerless to comfort and protect her child. There’s nothing more frustrating and terrifying for a parent,” Tammy said.
“We’re going to do our best to find them,” Jason assured her. “All of them. We all have missing loved ones, but first we have to find ourselves. That’s what today is about. What do you say? Are you ready to get started, one step at a time?”
Tammy slowly nodded. Jason patted her knee then stood up and started waking up the rest of the group. They had another meal of the ever-present corn, collected as much water and food as they could carry, then started walking away from the house together.
After only 20 minutes, they found what they were looking for. Jason had indeed seen a road the day before. At least it had been one at some point in time. The road had obviously not been maintained in a very long while. The asphalt had cracked and weeds were growing wildly through every possible spot. Tall grasses had overgrown the shoulders making the road appear much narrower than it had originally been, but it would work for their purposes.
“The Yellow Brick Road, it’s not,” declared George. “But it’s got to lead somewhere, even if it’s not the Emerald City.”
“Yep,” Jason agreed. “That’s the idea.” He then turned and addressed the rest of the group. “Keep an eye out for any road signs. Judging from the condition of this road, they probably won’t be clearly visible. Be looking for fallen signposts in the weeds along the roadside as well.”
They all nodded their understanding before picking a direction and starting down the rough, broken road. They had only walked about a mile before Larry yelled something then ran off the road, disappearing into the thick bushes. Larry Borowski had lived around Milwaukie most of his young life. It turned out that he was actually only thirteen, but, of course, he physically appeared to be more like a thick, balding forty-five-year-old man to Jason. It was just another of the crazy things that they were quickly getting used to in this bizarre world.
“Larry!” Tammy yelled after the boy.
“I found something,” Larry called back as he reemerged from the weeds dragging a rusty metal pole with equally filthy signs attached.
The group jogged to catch up as Larry triumphantly dropped the artifact in the middle of the road and stepped back proudly. Jason and George bent down to examine the badly decayed road signs. It looked like the sign portion had been mostly buried for years, but fortunately it was still legible after a little cleaning. The top sign announced that the road was called Iowa State Road 1 and the second sign declared that the town of Fairfield was only 20 miles away.
“Iowa?” Ray said dumbfounded.
“I guess all the corn should have been a dead giveaway,” responded George with a grin.
“Well, at least we have a general idea of where we are now. Once we get to the town, we should be able to find out some more information. We’re making progress,” Jason assured them with a smile.
Jason estimated that they travelled about twelve miles before the light started to fade. It was far less than he had hoped, however, his much older body just couldn’t keep up a decent pace without frequent stops. Everyone in the group appeared to be in similar physical shape and no one complained about the rest periods or lack of progress.
Amazingly, the elderly party continued to grow as they ran across wandering people throughout the day. Some groups were as small as two and others were as large as seven, but by the time they had made camp, their party had grown to twenty-four. Unfortunately, the newcomers all told familiar stories of confusion and disorientation. Most were clothed with the same brown coveralls but several were wearing coveralls of red or orange.
Jason and George quickly developed a protocol when encountering new people. They would introduce each other and then ask the strangers a series of questions in an attempt to milk as much information from them as they could before allowing them to join their motley band. The questions started with where they were originally from and ended with what they had seen thus far. They were particularly interested to find someone familiar with the area who could act as a guide. Anthony Simons wasn’t a guide, nor was he from Iowa, but he had possessed something just as valuable to the group.
Anthony, a criminal lawyer from Sacramento, California, was the de-facto leader of a troop they met late in the day on the road to Fairfield. Anthony’s band of seven people had all woken up together only a half a mile from the town itself. They had naturally investigated the town, looking for answers. He reported that Fairfield looked as if it had been abandoned many years ago. However, there were no signs of civil unrest or natural disaster damage, just normal decay. It was a ghost town. He even noted finding an old restaurant still set up as though all the customers had just disappeared mid meal. The most common word he used to describe the scene was “creepy”.
The good news was that the newcomers had found a fully stocked grocery store in Fairfield. It was obvious that the store had never been looted. Of course, anything perishable had long ago rotted away, but there were vast amounts of canned and well-sealed dry goods just waiting to be collected. They had gathered as much as they could carry and were heading out of the store when Anthony picked up an item that, just two days ago, would have seemed almost useless in a modern electronic society: a map.
The new, larger group made camp for the night in a small grove of trees just off Route 1. It was decided that they would continue onto Fairfield to scavenge as many supplies as they could before determining their next move. It was a short-term plan, but in their situation, it was the best they could do.
“It looks like, if we follow this road, it goes right on to Chicago,” said George pointing at the map in the flickering light of the campfire. “We’re bound to run into more people heading toward a huge population center like that.”
“Is that what we really want to do… find more people, I mean?” questioned Anthony. “Look, we don’t know what’s going on here, but from our collective experiences, we’ve got to assume everyone is in a similar situation. So, there is a very good chance that there is no government, police or even law out there waiting for us, just confused people trying to survive.” Anthony then looked squarely at George, “And tell us professor, how quickly are people likely to deteriorate into a ‘might makes right’ mentality in a situation like that?”
“Pretty quickly,” George confirmed gravely.
“Damn right, pretty quickly,” Anthony jumped on the omission. “I ask again, should we be out there wandering around looking for trouble or should we be arming ourselves and preparing for the worst?”
“He’s right,” Ray Parker fiercely agreed. “We need to be get’n ourselves some guns and building …”
“Hold on,” Jason interrupted firmly. “We don’t know shit yet. Now maybe Anthony is right and, the fact is, being able to defend ourselves isn’t a bad idea. But, we can’t start with the mentality that everyone is out to get us, at least not yet. If we’d been thinking like that today, how many of us would be hurt now or even dead?” He let the thought sink in before continuing. “If everyone truly is in the same situation, then now is not the time to be hunkering down. Now is the time to be finding people, making friends and allies, building a community, before the darker side of human nature starts to take hold. Look around you,” Jason motioned toward the numerous people sitting near several campfires. “This is how we survive and figure out what’s going on… together. We need to be supporting and helping each other, not going out of our way to kick start that darker side.”
Jason suddenly realized that he had been speaking far more loudly than he had intended, and everyone was silently staring at him, listening. He had never been in a real leadership position before, outside of a small team of coworkers. He had never wanted to be in charge. But for some reason, these people had started looking to him for guidance and he was stepping up for the first time in his life to accept the role. He didn’t understand why, but he was starting to feel responsible for this ragged gathering of strangers.
“What’s your plan, Jason? What should we do?” Tammy asked hopefully, breaking the silence. “How are we going to find ourselves, like you said this morning?”
All eyes were on Jason and he was about to give the same “I don’t know” answer, but something Tammy said inspired a thought. He knew exactly how to find a person. He could find a person anywhere on the planet. He wasn’t sure why he hadn’t thought of it before, but suspected it was the abrupt transition from his old life to this one. Two days ago, the very notion of sharing highly classified information with a group of twenty-three complete strangers would have been unthinkable. But those rules seemed to have very little power in this new reality and, most importantly, he realized that it was his best bet for finding Beth as well.
“There may be a way to find all our families,” Jason announced.
“What do you mean?” Mike finally asked almost drowned out by the murmurs of the crowd.
“There is a facility back in Maryland that can find anyone on the planet. If it’s still there, I know how to use the equipment,” Jason continued.
“What kind of facility?” challenged Anthony, his eyes narrowing. “And, even if this place still exists, what makes you think it would be operational. Nothing else we’ve found around here is.”
“It’s a special NSA project, called Theia. The site was built far underground in a bunker that was designed to withstand a direct nuclear blast. The facility was powered by its own geothermal electrical generators which I was told should be able to run unattended for over fifty years.” Jason paused briefly to gauge the group’s response to his farfetched tale. Some seemed confused, others seemed angry, but most were very interested. “Now I can’t promise anything. There are a lot of parts to this thing that might not be working.” Jason specifically feared that the required satellite network would no longer be operational but decided to not share those concerns with the rest of those listening. “But even if the equipment is totally nonoperational, the facility itself would be the perfect refuge. It's secure underground, with a good chance for power, and easily defended.”
“But we would have to travel halfway across the damn country to get there,” shouted a woman whose name Jason had forgotten.
“That’s true,” Jason agreed. “I’m not promising you an easy time. But it’s a destination. It’s hope. It’s something we can work toward together. Personally, that’s where I’m heading.”
Mike Hagen jumped up instantly. “I’m coming with ya, Jason,” the bulky man-boy announced without hesitation.
The rest of the group did not seem as eager as Mike. There were many skeptical looks among the elderly faces of the crowd and Jason knew that he didn’t need to push the idea tonight. He was sure that most people wanted to head back to their homes, but he didn’t have high hopes for what they would find there.
“Sleep on it. Take your time,” Jason suggested to everyone. “We’re still heading to Fairfield tomorrow to stock up on supplies and equipment. That plan hasn’t changed. We can stick together at least until then, but I hope that you’ll decide to come with me when the time comes.”
Everyone bombarded Jason with questions about Theia and his plans almost nonstop during their remaining trek to Fairfield. Several had become very suspicious of Jason now that they knew who he had worked for in his previous life. The National Security Agency was certainly not the most popular nor trusted government organization and Jason was starting to feel that resentment being directed at him. The very fact that Theia existed had angered many members of the group, but none more so than Anthony.
“Give it a rest, Anthony,” George pleaded.
“We get it. You don’t approve,” Mike chimed in, supporting George. “We don’t need to keep hearing about it.”
“I don’t understand how you two are taking this so easily,” said Anthony, exasperated. “If this damned machine does exist than the implications are horrible.” Anthony pointed toward Jason, who was across the street, organizing the food and equipment collections, “And if that man was part of building it, then he can’t be trusted. It shows his true character if you ask me.”
George and Mike followed Anthony’s pointing finger with their gaze. Jason was helping Sharon Givens stack cans before helping her over to a chair to sit down. Sharon was easily the frailest among their group. She appeared to be in her late eighties and the journey to Fairfield had been an extremely taxing one for her. Jason had been supporting her almost continuously during the last leg of the trip and had taken an acute interest in her well-being once they had arrived in the abandoned town.
George returned his gaze to Anthony, “I don’t really care what Jason did before he got here. At this point, I’m only going to judge a man’s character by the actions I see. And what I’ve seen of Jason makes me think that I can trust him. If you don’t want to go with us, no one’s forcing you.” He eyed Anthony briefly before continuing, “Excuse me, we’ve got work to do.” George then walked across the street to help the collection effort.
Mike shot Anthony a stern look then announced, “Yeah… what he said.” He then walked off to join the others.
The group ended up spending over two weeks in Fairfield building up a store of supplies and preparing themselves for the long journey. Some smaller groups set off on their own to return to their old homes, but the majority stayed within the safety of the greater group. Jason had hoped to find transportation of some sort in the town, but the streets and garages were oddly empty, as if someone had carefully collected all motor vehicles. Their biggest break had come when they had decided to explore a bit further down one of the main roads. There, they hit the mother lode when they discovered the Wal-Mart Super Center. It was a vast treasure trove of just about anything they needed.
Food, backpacks, camping supplies, rifles, ammunition and even wheelchairs for the less robust members of the group were all gleefully distributed. Strangely enough, most electronic devices were absent from all the buildings they surveyed. Again, nothing appeared looted by panicked mobs. The items were simply missing from the shelves. Jason assumed the phenomenon was probably similar to that of the missing cars. It was just one more mystery to add to the ever-growing list.
On the fourteenth evening in Fairfield, Jason called for another meeting of some of the leading group members to discuss the upcoming journey to Maryland. The group size had continued to swell since their arrival in town. At last count, over two hundred and fifty people had flocked to the town as if it had a gravity of its own, continually attracting more mass unto itself. There had been plenty of food to go around and, so far, everyone was behaving themselves, but the supplies in the town would only last so long, especially at the current rate of growth. Jason was more troubled by the fact that he had yet to see anyone that appeared younger than thirty-five. “Where were all the children?” he often wondered.
The meeting took place in the large living room of the “Smith House”. The Smith House was one of the few structurally sound homes the group had commandeered after arriving in town. The house was named after the previous owners who had left ample evidence of their residency, including a large, tattered wall quilt with “Smith’s” embroidered on it, and hundreds of knickknacks scattered around the home bearing the Smith name.
“We’re getting a lot of new faces showing up every day. I think there may be a lot that are going to stay once we move on,” reported Tammy Jenkins.
Jason nodded, “And how are we coming on the wagons?” he asked Emily Goyeau and Rich Turner. They had both been tasked with solving the transportation problem. Emily, who was a fourth-generation horse rancher, had spotted a band of wild mustangs in the fields outside of town. With the help of several other group members, they had managed to corner and capture one of the mares. Fortunately, it hadn’t taken long to break the horse, and soon Emily had used her to capture almost the entire herd.
Rich oversaw building the horse wagons that the group was going to need. In a lucky twist of fate, one of the last projects Rich had been commissioned for was to build a replica pioneer Conestoga wagon for his local parks department. While the lack of power tools dramatically slowed him down, with the help of a few others, he managed to construct three covered wagons complete with a few modern improvements to make the ride a bit smoother. The group would have their wagon train to Maryland.
“I can’t guarantee how well these horses are going to do on the wagons. I’ve been working with them as best as I can, but they are still wild, Jason,” Emily cautioned. “We just have to go slow and keep rotating them in and out of the harnesses for a while. Hopefully they’ll break in a little more as we go.”
“We’ve got three wagons ready to go. If you give me another week, I might be able to give you a fourth, but we wouldn’t have any horses to rotate,” Rich said.
“That’s ok, Rich. Thank you both. You’ve done great. Three is enough for now,” Jason said. “Are we ready to go with the supplies, George?”
George Willard nodded. “I think we are as good as we are going to get. We are traveling a bit lighter on food because we are planning on utilizing our Reclaimers to scavenge as we go. If Fairfield is any indication, then there should be plenty to find along the way.”
Jason looked puzzled, “Reclaimers?”
George smiled but Mike jumped to answer first. “It’s what everyone is calling us now, Jason. Ya know, kind of like a team name. It’s cuz we’ve been kind of reclaiming all this stuff back for our own use, reclaiming it for humanity. It sure sounded better than stealing it. Anyway, the name’s kind of stuck.”
Jason grinned and nodded. “Go Team Reclaimers,” he said while pumping a fist in the air, in a mockingly subdued impression of a sports fan.
“So, when do we leave?” asked Anthony from the back of the room. He had mellowed toward Jason a bit during the last two weeks and had, in fact, become a critical part of the leadership. Jason still wasn’t sure if he could trust Anthony and he was pretty sure Anthony didn’t trust him, but Jason needed his impressive organizational skills and the support of Anthony’s small group of followers.
“If there are no objections, then I say we pass the word and load up the wagons tomorrow. We’ll leave at the crack of dawn the day after. Anyone that’s just too old to walk, we’ll make room for in the wagons. The rest of us will take turns riding and walking,” said Jason.
Anthony looked concerned. “Jason, you know a lot of these people are just too old to make a trip like this. Hell, I think I’m too damn old to make this trip now. We need to try and convince as many as possible to stay here for their own sake. This is as good a place as any to settle in.”
“I’m not going to prevent anyone who wants to come from going, but you’re right, Anthony. We should try our best to convince them to stay if we can. If we find better transportation down the road, maybe we can come back for them. Who knows what we’ll find out there?” said Jason. He then turned his attention back to Tammy. “You’ve been keeping track of folks, Tammy. How many do you think are willing to make the trip?”
Tammy pushed her greying hair out of her face and consulted her notebook. “I’d say close to two hundred, Jason. That includes at least ten or so outgrowns,” she concluded solemnly.
Jason nodded his understanding. Outgrown was the term they had come to use for people that physically appeared in their thirties, but only had the mental capacity of barely a toddler. They could be especially dangerous to others and themselves and therefore needed consistent supervision. They would have to come with the group. If left behind, they would be a tremendous burden to the ones that were staying in Fairfield because they were too frail to make the trip.
Jason knew that the very idea of the outgrowns disturbed Tammy greatly. The thought of her precious five-year-old being trapped and confused in the lumbering body of a thirty-five-year-old caused her immense pain. Jason often found himself silently grateful for Beth’s miscarriage before the guilt would overwhelm him for even allowing the thought to creep into his mind. He had no idea how Tammy had been tolerating her obviously increasing desperation to find her family. He just hoped that he would be able to help her and everyone else at the end of the journey.
“Well, unless there are any more questions, I say we call it a night. We’ve got a big day tomorrow and an even bigger one the day after that. I think we’ve done all we can to prepare. It’s time to go,” Jason said.
The Reclaimer leadership all mumbled their agreement then packed up their belongings and headed out to their own homes for the night. Anthony waited for the rest to file out of the house before stopping at the door and turning to Jason.
“I hope this trip is going to be worth it, Jason,” he said.
“So do I, Anthony. So do I. Goodnight,” Jason responded as he slowly closed the door behind Anthony.