CHAPTER 3 – Alive and Well
The cut on the man’s head was just above his left ear. An inch lower and it would have taken the ear off. As it was, according to Vonnie, if he woke up, blood-loss would probably be his main concern. She had told Charlie the man probably had a concussion, but she didn’t think his skull was fractured.
Charlie Dickerson stared at the unconscious man and wondered if he would wake up soon, or even at all. He still had some doubts. Vonnie had asked him to wake her if the man stirred.
Charlie didn’t like just sitting around, not when things needed doing. And since all hell had broken loose the day before, there was no shortage of things that needed doing. But Vonnie had asked him to watch her patient so she could sleep for a couple of hours. After administering first aid and watching over this one along with several others they had accumulated through the afternoon and night, she was really dragging. And, since Charlie dearly loved his Vonnie and would do anything that she asked of him, he decided this qualified as something that needed doing, so he sat and stared at the man.
At The Judge’s behest, Charlie and another neighbor, Evan Holm, a middle-aged shoe salesman that lived across the street with his invalid wife, had hauled this one away from his car right after he had smashed it into Charlie’s, just in case the smoke coming from the engine area indicated something catastrophic was about to happen. Fortunately, Charlie’s car was still parked and unoccupied in his driveway at the time. In about thirty seconds more, though, he and Vonnie would have been in or near it as they rushed to join the exodus. He didn’t even want to think about what the passenger side of his car looked like now. That’s where Vonnie would have been.
People had gone nuts yesterday, running around and driving through his neighborhood like maniacs in their attempts to get away from the flying little planes strafing the town with fire. After they got this one inside The Judge’s house, The Judge had remarked that most of the cars racing around probably wouldn’t even make it out of town, so it was probably best that his and Vonnie’s attempt had been aborted. The few streets Charlie could see from the window were now filled with wrecked and smoking cars. He doubted if many of the occupants had been able to get out before their cars became their crematoriums.
Charlie shuddered at the thought of loosing his Vonnie. She had been the love of his life since they were high school sophomores. That was the year he and his parents had moved to California from Oklahoma. He was smitten the first time he laid eyes on the beautiful Mexican girl sitting nearby in his homeroom. It had taken him until they were juniors, though, to get up the nerve to ask her to go to a movie with him. But, from that first date, he had known she was the one he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. That was nineteen years ago, now, and he still marveled at his fortune that a smart, beautiful girl like Vonnie, who was now an even more beautiful woman, would go for a plain guy like him.
Charlie always saw himself as a plodder. He got okay grades in school, but he had to work like hell to get them. He often said if Vonnie hadn’t given him a ton of help, he would probably still be there. Her tutoring had not only gotten him through his classes, but with grades good enough to qualify for the football team. He did love to play football. Once high school was done, though, he had no desire to extend his torture by going to college, even though she was going to go. Plus, he was certain he was too small to get on a decent college football team.
Besides, he wanted to join the Marines. He had always been patriotic to the bone, and he figured service in the U. S. Marines was about as patriotic a thing that a guy could do. So, while Vonnie spent four years getting even smarter and becoming a nurse, Charlie had become a Marine. That’s when he found out that Marines did more than shoot rifles and strut around in the best-damned looking uniforms ever sewn together. Besides learning to be a fighting leatherneck, he had also learned how to keep heavy equipment operation. So, when he returned to civilian life and marriage to Vonnie, he had the basis of a productive career. He was proud of his reputation as now one of the most sought-after backhoe and cat operators in the area.
He had another reputation among his co-workers, co-drinkers, and everyone who knew him: he would not stand by and watch while someone suffered undeservedly if he could make a difference. It didn’t matter if it was a child thrown from a headstrong tricycle, a bully picking on a meeker man at Charlie’s favorite bar, or a man staggering in the street after a car-totaling collision – even if the opposing car was Charlie’s.
When he and Vonnie had heard the booming crash just beyond the living room walls as they snatched up what they couldn’t leave behind, they both dashed outside. They found the man staggering about with a considerable amount of blood on his head and face. Charlie had learned all about head wounds in the Marines, and this guy looked like he wouldn’t live to see the sunset. If it hadn’t been for Vonnie and The Judge, Charlie was afraid he might have left him there. With the entire town being destroyed and Vonnie’s safety to think about, Charlie was faced with choosing priorities. But Vonnie was the on-site expert, so he had gone along with her judgment that the guy might live. Plus, he had been a friend and neighbor of The Judge for a good ten years, and he had a fair idea of how much smarter the guy was than Charlie. So, when even The Judge accepted Vonnie’s judgment, Charlie wasn’t about to argue.
With Vonnie trailing and muttering concerns about the man’s blood loss, he and Evan had supported the unconscious guy between them as they followed The Judge up to his house a couple of doors away, on the corner of the next block. The Judge had already taken in several people with various injuries, some pretty serious. So, when he pointed out that he could use some help in tending to them, plus that Charlie’s house probably wouldn’t last long with the one next door on the downhill side already blazing away, he convinced Charlie and Vonnie to stay at his place, a beautifully restored, three-story Victorian—at least until it, too, took a hit.
After they had helped get the man into a bed, Evan went back home, and Charlie dashed back to haul what he could out of his house if the place did go up. Good thing, too. The south wall and roof started blazing before he had much of a chance to save anything except some clothes and a few photographs.
Evan and his wife weren’t so lucky. When their house burst into flame a couple of hours later when an alien’s laser hit it, Evan was unable to get Sandra out. Charlie and The Judge pulled him back just as he was about to run back into the fully engulfed structure. He fought them for a couple of minutes, but then simply collapsed into a deep, half-conscious depression of grief. They half led, and half carried him into the Judge’s house where he slipped into a deep sleep. Vonnie said it was probably best.
Now Charlie ambled about in one of The Judge’s bedrooms gazing at a guy that had destroyed both of their cars and wishing he would wake up.
He was younger than Charlie, but not by much; less than ten years, maybe, which would make him at least twenty-five. Charlie thought he looked closer to thirty. He was good looking, Charlie supposed, with straight features, a strong jaw, high cheekbones and a short shock of blond hair that flopped across his forehead. It was hard to tell with the guy in bed, and almost as hard to tell when he and Evan had carried him in, but Charlie thought he was probably three or four inches over Charlie’s own five nine. When Charlie had helped Vonnie get him situated with his clothes opened up for her to examine him for other injuries, Charlie observed he had a pretty good physique, trim and muscular. Not quite body-builder grade, but definitely capable. He could be a Marine, Charlie thought. He had seen a lot of men in the service with “user muscles” as opposed to “beach-boy muscles.”
Charlie gazed down at his own body, muscular enough but with a bit of a beer-belly, and he mentally compared it to the unconscious man’s. He wondered if Vonnie had done the same. He couldn’t blame her if she had; the guy was tall, young, good looking, and well built. He shrugged and decided he’d worry about her if she didn’t give the guy a second, unprofessional look. Besides, he often bragged, if only while joking with Vonnie, that if he kept his gut sucked in he could still wear his Marine uniform, which he always did whenever the veterans in the area turned out for parades.
He turned from his charge and walked over to peer out the window again. From the second floor of The Judge’s house, which was in the higher elevation area northwest of downtown, he could see much of the business area below and clear across to the flatter and more recently developed east side of town. Normally, he would have a clear view of even the hills a couple of miles beyond the last house over there. He had looked over the town from these rooms during various holiday celebrations over the years to which The Judge would invite neighbors and friends. He hardly recognized it, now.
Downtown Petaluma looked like pictures he had seen of Berlin at the end of World War Two in the wake of Allied bombing raids. None of the buildings were whole, some were collapsed, most still smoked, and a few still blazed. He recognized specific buildings, or, at least their remains, only because he knew his hometown and what was where. No cars moved, but lots of them jammed the streets, smoking and burned out hulks, dead and unmoving, many joined together in twisted wreckages. A few people roamed about, but there seemed to be no purpose in any of them. South of downtown and over on the east side, he could make out nothing but mounds of what he knew were the remains of burned and burning houses, sprinkled here and there by what appeared to be occasional undamaged structures. Smoke rose above the scene, not in plumes but sheets. The eastern hills were mere hints and shadows.
He was shaking his head, trying to grasp what had happened the previous day, when the man in the bed behind him said, “Where am I?”
Charlie turned back to the patient. “The Judge’s house. You wrecked your car. We carried you up here.”
“But, what about the attacks? Who were they? Did they stop? What happened? How long have I been here?”
“You wrecked your car yesterday, and, as far as I know, the attacks stopped yesterday, not long after we brought you here.”
“But who were they? I’ve never seen anyth—ahhh.” The man had started to rise in his quest for answers but clinched his eyes shut as he gasp-sighed. He eased back down to his pillow and groaned.
“Yeah, me neither,” Charlie said. “You might not want to try to get up, just yet. Vonnie, that’s my wife, she says you probably got a concussion. She’s only a nurse, but she’s a good one.”
After a moment, without opening his eyes, the man said, “How much damage was done?”
Charlie didn’t have to look back out the window to describe it. “Town’s pretty much gone. Few people still walking around, but they look like they’re not sure of what to do.”
“Was it just here? How wide spread was it?”
“Don’t know. Radios, phones, and anything else battery powered aren’t working. Just static. And, o‘course, there ain’t no electricity to plug teevees into.”
“If there hasn’t been any contact from outside since yesterday, it must be pretty wide spread. Any idea who they were? Or what they were?”
“What they were probably is closer to it. I got a fair idea of what we’ve got, and I don’t think we’ve got anything even close to what hit us. So, I’ll ask you; any idea who or what they were?”
Charlie and the man simply gazed at each other.
Finally, Charlie said, “Yeah, me, too. Anyway, I’m Charlie Dickerson.”
“Adam Rainger,” the man said as he raised his hand in a half-hearted wave. “Thanks for saving my skin.”
“You’re welcome. You relax a bit, and I’ll go see if Vonnie’s awake.”
Charlie found his wife in the hallway downstairs, leaning against the wall and wiping at tears as The Judge carried a small body out of the house. The badly burned boy she had been tending had gone into convulsions and died while Vonnie watched, helpless.
After a moment’s silent hug, Charlie asked, “Get much sleep?”
“Not much.” Her smile sagged. “Is he awake?”
On their way back to Adam’s room, Vonnie stopped off to check on a new arrival The Judge had left in another room. It was a young woman with a eight or nine-month old baby. The Judge had found them sleeping on the front porch when he got up an hour earlier. The woman said she stopped to rest and fell asleep. Of course, The Judge invited her to stay. When Vonnie made her initial examination of her and the baby, the baby seemed fine, but the woman complained of a headache and dizziness. She had a pretty good bump on the side of her head, but that was all Vonnie could find.
While Vonnie did her nurse’s bit checking on the pair’s condition, Charlie stayed by the door, proudly admiring the efficiency with which she worked. Although she was still almost as slim as the wisp of a girl he fell for in high school, her woman’s body had filled out in just the right places. He loved to bury his face in her mass of raven-black hair that tumbled to her shoulders. Although, now, he was sad to see, those lovely tresses were as limp and dragged-out looking as the rest of her. But, even as tired as she was, she never forgot she was a nurse.
“Mornin’, Charlie, Vonnie,” said a voice from the hallway behind Charlie.
Charlie turned his head to return the greeting from another recent addition to the Victorian, Leroy Abernathy, a middle-aged bachelor who taught at an elementary school a few blocks over. Charlie and he had become friends several years ago when The Judge led a coalition that successfully opposed a small but vocal group of parents protesting to the school board about hiring Abernathy, a newcomer in town. The parents claimed they were against putting him into a classroom because of some vague discrepancy with his teaching certificate along with the contention that something just wasn’t right about a middle-aged bachelor that liked to be around children, even though he was an experienced teacher with a good record. Charlie and everyone else suspected it was because the man was black.
“Hey, Leroy,” Charlie responded for both of them.
Leroy had come limping past the Victorian nursing a burned arm and shoulder plus a twisted ankle after his apartment building a couple of blocks west had burned down, and The Judge invited him in.
After Leroy continued on down to the kitchen, Charlie turned back to watch his wife work. The woman said her headache was only annoying, now, and the dizziness was almost gone. Vonnie told her to continue to rest as much as she could and then joined Charlie at the door. The woman rose and walked over near the window, cradling her baby, who was beginning to fuss.
Just as Charlie held the door open for Vonnie, he heard a moan behind him and turned with Vonnie to see the woman go limp and begin collapsing. The mother’s instinctive hold on the precious bundle dissolved as her lifeless arms fell away. The next few instants seemed to crawl while Charlie watched the new tragedy in the making, his feet nailed to the floor by the shock of knowing he and Vonnie were too far away to catch the dropping infant.
The woman was a bit taller than average, and she had been holding her son near her face, so the baby’s freefall was well over five feet to uncarpeted hardwood. But he never reached the floor.
Charlie watched in awe as the baby’s fall suddenly braked and then completely stopped with just inches remaining between the top of its fragile skull and the oak planking. The woman’s body settled and lay unmoving. The little boy, still head down and squalling at his abrupt lack of stability, slowly floated across the room to Vonnie’s anxiously extended and grasping hands. As soon as she had a firm hold on the baby, she drew it into her arms. Only then, her head turning slowly toward him and her eyes darting about the room to finally come to rest on his, did Vonnie mirror Charlie’s astonishment.
“What did –?”
“How did you –?”
“How – hold on.” Vonnie placed the infant into Charlie’s hands before rushing over to kneel beside the baby’s unmoving mother. She felt for a pulse on the side of her neck, a heartbeat with an ear pressed to her chest, raised one of the woman’s eyelids.
Slumping beside the woman, Vonnie shook her head and said, “Could have been a blood clot.”
Charlie shuffled forward as he cradled the baby, whose cries began to lessen with the return of security in the gentle hands and strong arms.
She continued, “That’s always a danger with a blow to the head. And there’s really nothing you can do to prevent it, not in these circumstances. Even a doctor –” but she could no longer contain the wonder and its myriad questions. With her eyes seeking his and her voice quavering, she whispered, “Charlie, what happened?”
Charlie knelt beside her, and she took the baby from his arms. He circled his arm around Vonnie’s shoulder and drew her tight against him. He kissed the top of her head. His own voice came out in an awe-squelched rasp. “I don’t know. It looked like you did it, though. Did you?”
“I – I think so. I mean, I think I could feel it, in my head. I could feel his weight – Charlie, I could feel him squirming. It was just that I saw him falling and had to stop him – I had to catch him, to save him. I had to. It was like my whole being jumped out there and grabbed him.”
“Whatever it was, I’m glad you did it. I don’t know if I could stand watching him die like that.” He and Vonnie both loved children, and, although they had tried for years to start a family, they remained childless.
She looked up into Charlie’s eyes and touched his hand. “We probably shouldn’t tell anyone about this. I don’t mean about her dying – just about ….” She indicated the rest of the room and whatever mysteries it contained with her fluttering hand.
“Not even The Judge? Don’t you think –?”
“Just until we have time to think about it and maybe how ….” With the words hanging, she offered a weak smile and a shrug.
“Okay, sweetheart. If that’s what you think is best.”
“Let’s go tell The Judge she’s gone. He’ll probably need you to help carry her out.”
Twenty minutes later, with the baby in the care of a woman in the kitchen and the mother’s body in another shallow grave beneath the dirt floor of a carriage house out back, they were back up in the hallway outside Adam’s room. They locked eyes for a moment as they drew strength from each other. They each took a deep breath and let it out slowly, and then shared a nod before opening the door and walking in.
Charlie waited by the window while Vonnie attended her patient.
She said, “I’m sure you’ve got a splitting headache, so I won’t ask how you feel. Anything else I should know about?”
“Yeah. We were attacked.”
Vonnie sat on the edge of the bed and took Adam’s pulse. “Memory seems to be okay. How many fingers?”
Adam glanced at Vonnie’s splayed hand and replied, “Which hand?”
“Sense of humor seems okay, too. Dizziness, nausea?”
“All of the above.”
Vonnie nodded and smiled as she patted his hand. “Okay. You really whacked your head. Probably should stay here for a day or so.” She handed him some water and a couple of aspirin. “I’m afraid we don’t have anything stronger at the moment.”
While Adam downed the contents of the glass, The Judge walked into the room.
With a full head of snow-white, wavy hair and a long, straight nose, he was tall, well over six feet, and lean; but rather than awkwardly lanky, he had an aristocratic air about him. Widowed as a young man and never remarried, and then having spent most of his career in the administration of the law on the bench of the Petaluma branch of the superior court, the man had long ago developed an outward appearance that could be read as both receptive and reserved at the same time. However, Charlie would tell anyone that he was warm and open.
“Yo, Judge, our boy is alive and well. Well, awake, anyway.”
“Yes, Charlie, I see,” he answered in a soft baritone as he stepped over to the bed with hand expended. “Thomas Woodall, your host. I’m pleased to see you’re feeling better.”
Adam shook the hand and replied with a wan smile, “If this is better, I’m glad I don’t remember worse.”
“Hmm. I’m sure. I’m sure, too, that you have many questions; however, I don’t know what I can tell you. You seem to be an intelligent, educated person. Military, perhaps?”
“Navy, active. I’m home on leave.”
The Judge nodded and continued, “I have no idea who they were, or why they came. From what I can make out from talking to various persons, survivors who themselves are still scratching their heads, the radio and television stations, even those serviced by satellites, even cell phones, went dead some time before they arrived. It could be something exotic like a blanketing disruption of some kind, or they may have simply destroyed our satellites. We have to assume other places were hit, too, since there’s been no relief effort yet. The … attackers came and went very quickly. They withdrew after the attack, but I doubt if they’re gone. They left behind many deaths and a destroyed city. No one has been very willing to make the observation out loud, but their aircraft and weapons can only be described as out of this world.”
Adam peered at The Judge, then at Charlie and Vonnie, and back at the Judge. He eased himself up onto his elbows, but only for a moment. After he was back on his pillow, he said, “I didn’t see a lot before the crash, but what I did see scared the hell out of me. I’m pretty sure we have nothing even close to what hit us. And no one else on this planet has anything better than us.”
He looked at The Judge, at Charlie, and then back at The Judge before Charlie responded. “And, that pretty well says it, doesn’t it?”
“We’ll have to just wait and see, I suppose,” The Judge said. “Meanwhile, you rest … and mind the nurse.” After a smile to Vonnie, he turned back to Adam and went on. “She’s the only medical person we have, but I don’t think we could possibly have one more dedicated. Now, Charlie, why don’t you and I go downtown and see what help we can be? I think there may be some organizing in progress.”