Thursday, February 25, 2010

Chapter Nine

Chapter 9

It’s official. Donovan is demented. As much trouble as we are in he seems to be enjoying himself way too much.

First off, while I may refuse to let Mr. Insanity see how uncomfortable I am that doesn’t mean I’m going to lie about it here. I’m cold. No. Actually what I am is freaking cold. As in the kind of cold that should never have been allowed into Creation, if you'll pardon my opinion on the subject. I hate this.

Wisdom dictates that layering your clothing is warmer than a single thick garment. The space between the layers, though miniscule, acts like added insulation. Well let me tell you if I was any more layered I couldn’t bend my arms or legs to drive. It’s a good thing that Chandler had made sure to check out my personal gear before she left as I was so clueless. She even made me bring a pair of bigger boots so that I could wear multiple pairs of socks and still get my shoes on without cutting the circulation off to my toes.

My base layer is a polartec set of long johns. They are warm but the best thing is that they funnel moisture away from my body. The purpose of sweating is to create evaporation to cool your body; therefore evaporation is a bad thing when you are trying to stay warm. The polartec wicks the sweat away before it can evaporate.

The mid layer is for insulation. What I wear traps my body heat and keeps it close (therefore the need for the polytec base layer against my skin) but is half the bulk of the old fashioned stuff they used to have on the market. If I had to wear the old-fashioned stuff I really would look like a short, fat polar bear.

My outer layer is the waterproof layer. By this layer I have on my underclothes, three pairs of pants, three long sleeved shirt like pieces, a fleece pullover, a down vest looking thing and a waterproof and windproof winter coat with a well-insulated hood. My accessories include a hat with a brim and ear muffs … and after I nearly lost it twice last night it now has a nice chin strap to hold it on my head … sunglasses, a thin pair of inner gloves, and outer pair of wind and water proof gloves and a pair of fingerless mittens on a string around my neck in case I need them. Then comes my foot gear; a thin pair of inner socks and a couple pair of warm socks on top of that and my boots are waterproof muck boots that come to just below my knees and has these open treads that really grip on slick stuff.

All of that and I’m still freezing which is ridiculous. Wearing all of these clothes is taking some getting used to as well. I feel smothered. Shorts, tank tops and flip flops was practically the school uniform year round at USF except for maybe two weeks in the spring semester when you actually had to wear a coat (not necessarily long pants however). I wore jeans and a jacket or sweater in the bunker but even then I still felt free to wiggle around a bit in my clothes. Not with this stuff. It is really just irritating. But I guess I better get used to it because Mr. Gloom and Doom … when he deigns to talk to me in more than grunts and two word phrases … says that we are looking at years of this kind of weather.

Part of my shivers are nerves I’m sure. The morning of our departure Donovan made me run through everything one more time. I did it while I was taking down and stowing the tent and he was eating what passed for breakfast. I couldn’t eat and didn’t want to waste the food pretending. We hadn’t even left the bunk and we had our first argument.

“Donovan, the more you try and force me to eat the less I’m going to want to eat or even be able to.”

Donovan, out of what little patience he’d been trying to act like he had said, “In the cold our bodies are going to use the same kind of energy as if we were doing hard labor. As a matter of fact our body is doing hard labor, it’s burning energy to keep us …”

“I … know … already,” I huffed as I shoved the tent poles and stakes into their proper place. “The Major worked me over with a couple of those lectures before she left. I’ve got a bag of granola in my pocket for when my stomach settles.”

“Aaawwwww, is the wittle girl scared of the big bad snow?”

I’d had all of his attitude I could handle. “Yes. Yes I’m scared. I’ve never experienced anything like this. What’s making this worse is that I thought that I was going into this with a friend and I thought there was going to be some mutual support.”

“Well, teach you to think won’t it. If you’re waiting on me to thank you you’ll be waiting a long @#$% time,” he said in a nasty voice.

I was starting to feel nasty mean myself. “I don’t want your thanks you hard headed Neanderthal, I never did! I didn’t do it for that.”

“Oh, that’s right. You did it because your religion told you to.”

I just grabbed hold of my temper before I really blew up. “You know Donovan, I’m still the same person I was before you got hurt. I’ve had these same convictions about things all along. I haven’t changed one single bit. You can cuss me, push me, ignore me, insult me to your heart’s content but I will never regret what I did even if you are turning mean as an old warthog. I really don't know what your problem is but I was not going to drive away and know that you died alone and sick and that this God awful prison was your blasted mausoleum! Jerk!!”

I tied and cinched the tarp in place and then slammed my hat on my head and stomped over to crank the warehouse door open just enough to get the half-track out. I walked back a little calmer, opened the passenger door and waited for Donovan to hobble over. Regardless of whatever his brain damage was I wasn’t leaving him and he needed a boost to get in the cab.

Donovan had lost the false face he’d had in place in the middle of our bickering and was as close to being the man I remembered as he’d been in days. “You really hate this place.”

“Hate isn’t strong enough. I despise this place. But it was sort of home and relatively safe as you could get at the end of the world.”

He looked at me, really looked at me and said, “But you are glad to leave it behind.”

“Glad to leave the life I was leading behind. It was a gilded cage that was becoming too comfortable. I was starting to get complacent. The routine was … I was losing myself to everything. There was nowhere for me to go, no way for me to get ahead. The warehouse could practically run itself after a while and there was no challenge for me. I was stuck. All of the other women were … moving, growing, finding a new life even if we were stuck inside these walls. I was being punished for rocking the boat, I never had a chance and I came to understand that. And don’t deny it because we both know it’s true; that’s why I was never allowed on any of the work details outside of Level 5. But now, outside that door is freedom, but it comes with a kind of price and it is a high one and I’m scared. So don’t give me any crap. You haven’t had to walk in my boots, I doubt you are even capable of understanding what it felt like to have to live this dumbed down life I’ve been stuck in. Now come on, it’s getting cold and we’re burning fuel.”

I leaned over to give him a wider place to step up on than the running board. He got in without comment but it cost him. I could tell he was hurting.

“Your pills are in the …”

“Yeah, yeah. Let’s get on the road and I’ll pop one.”

It took twenty minutes for me to maneuver the half-track out, shut down the last circuit breaker and then manhandle the door closed. I heard the manual safety locks click and then I pulled the plug on the main power from inside the bunker. Then I went out the much smaller service entrance door and closed it behind me. In a culvert beside the door I pull the disconnect breaker for the service entrance. No one was getting back in the bunker now unless they had a matching disconnect switch. I got in the cab, threw the breaker behind the seat and shivered my way back to a semblance of warmth. When I could feel my hands I gripped the wheel and we were off.

Because of the weather conditions we aren’t going to be able to navigate celestially; everything is going to be compass and maps. Unfortunately we already know that the maps are going to be next to useless. One of the things that Donovan is doing as we go along is to re-map the areas we go through in case we ever have to backtrack.

There was no conversation for the first couple of hours. It had more to do with mutual tenseness than it did the argument. It took all of my concentration to learn the ins and outs of the half-track and to follow the landmarks that the salvage teams had left behind. I had a raging headache from the white gloom and started to shiver again. Donovan noticed and said, “Eat the granola Emma. We’ll share the thermos today but I think I have an idea for tomorrow. We are going to need the warmth more than I suspected. The salvage teams were out here in what passed for the summer months, we are just now heading into winter and we are already below zero.”

I was hungry and it was something to pass the time so I didn’t argue. Neither did he when I offered him the bag. The silence was filled by crunching.

That first day was nerve wracking and so was the next but today is when things really started getting hairy. The first night we stayed in a dilapidated autobody shop. I just drove right in one of the bays. You could tell where the salvage teams had used the place before. It had been mostly gutted but they’d built a mini-bunker that we crawled into and set up our sleeping quarters for the night after securing what was left of the bay door. It was so cold I couldn’t really sleep for very long at a time and the next morning I inhaled my breakfast allotment of caffeine. What I wouldn’t have given for a No-Doze.

The weather was so cold that even though we had self-heating meals, and those things get pretty hot, in the cold they don’t stay warm for long. Breakfast the second day was beef stew, a toaster pastry, an oatmeal cookie, lemonade (powdered mix plus filtered water in our canteen), crackers, raisins, and a squeeze packet of peanut butter. I ate it all and could have kept going. I’ve never been a huge eater and being that hungry was a novel experience but one that I have a feeling will be repeated on a regular basis from here on out. I saved the salt and pepper packets in a bag in the glove compartment as I didn’t need them. I nearly freaked when I looked at the packaging and saw that I had just eaten 1310 calories, 520 of them from fat. I choked on a swallow of coffee which when Donovan found out why started him to laughing until he bumped his leg. So glad I provided him with some amusement … not.

We flatten out all of our trash and save it for “kindling” in case we need it later. Then we were off again, leaving the little town of Indian Mound, TN behind us. We haven’t seen a single living thing though the salvage teams reported hearing dogs … or maybe it was wolves; they could never catch the sounds to record them. It was eerie and depressing. Last night we reached the edge of the area the salvagers had mapped. This time we drove down into an underground parking garage. I was so tired, even after eating nearly 4000 energy-filled calories for the day, and I knew that I had another rough night ahead of me. I got up from where I had been sitting moping to secure the half-track and found Donovan messing around under the hood.

“What are you doing?”

“If you are finished with your pouting you can come here and give me a hand. I had to rework my plan but I think I’ve got it figured now. When I lived out in Arizona a friend loaned me this book called Manifold Destiny; it’s about cooking food on your car engine. Well, the self-heats will work for that but we need water to run through the filter to drink. I took this metal ammo box and loaded it with snow and I mounted it … see there? Now … yeah, run that clip through there. It shouldn’t go anyplace even on a bad road. The engine will melt the snow and all we’ll have to do is run it through the filter instead of having to wait to have something decent to drink when we make camp. When I’ve got more mobility I’ll see if there is a way to run a hose through the firewall and into the glove compartment so that we don’t have to keep taking the ammo box out and putting it back in. We’ll just fill it up when we stop and we’ll have a fairly constant source of warm water.” I just stood there slack jawed. Now that is what I call creativity.

After securing our vehicle it was time to crawl into what passed for a bed. We both lay there almost too tired to sleep. I tried not to but I was shivering before I could get comfortable and let sleep take me.

“This is getting ridiculous kid.” Then he pulled my coverings off.

“What the?! Do you mind?!!”

“Yeah, actually I do but I’m tired of being cold too.” He was twisting and grimacing and then said, “Crawl in kid. It will be warmer this way.”

I was so tired and just wanted to get warm so I crawled in and found that we were laying a whole lot closer than we had before. “Relax kid, I’m not going to bite. I’m too tired.”

“I’m not a kid and you aren’t an old man so knock it off.”

“This isn’t the time to be reminding me …” he sighed. “It was a joke Emma. I’m serious, we’ll be warmer this way. I promise I won’t …”

“I said knock it off. I know you aren’t that kind of man. I’m just getting tired of you treating me like I’m a know nothing squirt, OK?”

I guess I’d surprised him somehow because he did stop and I felt him staring at the back of my head. Then he was snoring and I was warm and that is the only thing I really cared about at that moment so I went to sleep too.

The next day was a little embarrassing. We both woke up about the same time and jumped because we found out we’d gotten pretty doggone close during the night trying to stay warm. But you are only going to get so close when you are fully dressed including your coat. The only thing we weren’t wearing were our boots.

I flew out of the covers and headed to our designated latrine area to take care of things while he got out and limbered up, not an easy task for him right now. We need more padding beneath us but I’m not sure what to use for it.

This morning we left all the salvaging landmarks behind. It meant moving even slower which was pretty hard to do. We were heading northeast, and with pretty good reason. The bunker had been built near a granite quarry deep in rural in Tennessee. Donovan and I talked it over at length for a while.

Appropos of nothing Donovan asks, “You ever heard of the Kentucky Cave Wars?”

Not minding a distraction, or the fact that Donovan was finally talking to me in full sentences I said, “No. Were they important for Bunker Gamma?”

“Uh uh. But they might be important for where we are heading. Assuming we can get there and assuming … well, look. My aunt married a Mennonite.”

Wondering if this was why he was so sensitive about religion I asked, “You were Mennonite?”

“No. Neither was my aunt. The man she married left the sect when he was in his late teens. He still kept to a lot of the traditions but just not enough of them not to get excommunicated. Anyway, they settled on a farm in Kentucky and I was sent to live with them a few years at a time.”

My confusion must have showed on my face. “Girl, not everyone has happy childhoods. My mom left when I was a baby and Dad couldn’t always hold it together. Sometimes he’d just drop me off at my Aunt and Uncle’s for a while.”

When I didn’t say anything he said, “What? No comment? No ‘so that’s why you are the way you are’?”

“Uh, Donovan … it’s kinda none of my business. And knowing a possible reason still doesn’t mean I’m going to cut you any slack when you are being a pain in my backside. I don’t hold you responsible for the drunk that killed my parents so don’t hold me responsible for your less than stellar childhood.”

He barked out a laugh, “You’re … oh forget it. Let’s just say that there are reasons why I feel the way I do about you Bible thumpers but they don’t have anything to do with my Dad. And my Aunt and Uncle were good people. They kept me out of foster care and on the straight and narrow and Uncle Shem taught me a lot of practical skills that have come in handy over the years. One of the things he was a bear about was education and a big part of that was local history. We tramped over thousands of acres with him telling me stories like you wouldn’t believe or going to talk to some Old-Timer that would tell me more stories.”

“Did you have a lot of cousins?”

“No. Uncle Shem had measles when he was a teenager and couldn't have kids. Aunt Rachel said I was the answer to their prayers and was more than enough to … geez, that was a long time ago and not what I meant to talk about.”

“So don’t talk about it.”

“You really don’t care do you?”

I thought for a second, “It’s not that I don’t care Donovan, at least not the way you are making it sound. If you want to share then I’ll listen. I just don’t know where this is coming from or where it is going. You haven’t shown much interest in my past. You never asked me how I wound up tricked into Level 5. You never showed any interest in my personal data period. I just figured it was never part of the equation for you so I figured wondering about your personal data was a waste of time for me. You would either tell me or not. Either way we were already the people we were and friends of a sort.”

He looked at me and gave me a disbelieving look. “If that’s true then you have to be the only female that I’ve ever met with that attitude.”

“I thank you on behalf of my gender Mr. Neanderthal.”

“How did we get off on this topic?”

“Don’t ask me, you are the one that … “

“Fine. So you haven’t heard of the Kentucky Cave Wars.”

“No professor, I have not. Lecture on.”

That won me a look that could have peeled bark but he kept going. “Back in the early part of the 1900’s cave tourism was big business in places like Barren County, KY where Mammoth Cave is located. Farming was hard and the tourism money was relatively easy. Competing tourist traps played all sorts of dirty tricks to get unsuspecting marks to visit their cave rather than the other ones. But that’s not what is important.”

“So what is important ‘cause I’m getting confused with your roundaboutation.”

“Smart aleck. It’s the caves. The first area I want to investigate isn’t too far from where my Uncle’s farm used to be. Some of those caves are deep and long with average constant temperatures in the caves running between 48 and 60 degrees F depending on how long and how deep the cave is and whether it is a dry or wet cave.”

“I take it cave study was something your Uncle encouraged,” I muttered.

Donovan grinned, “Oh yeah, you could say that. His house was built over a small cave and he used the air from the cave to cool the house in the summer and warm the house in the winter.”

“The bunker life never bothered you then.”

“I didn’t say that. Living in a cave is a lot different than living over one. Aunt Rachel died of ovarian cancer when I was in highschool and Uncle Shem of a heart attack a couple of years later while I was working at a local mill, putting myself through school. The farm went into probate and nothing was left after that. I joined … never mind, I worked with a private security contractor but went back to the area to go spelunking once or twice a year. I know that area and I know there are caves that should still be usable for our purposes.”

“I hear a ‘but’ in there.”

“Like I said, if I know they are there then others will know they are there. You heard about those people that have Mammoth Cave pretty much locked down and living there. That’s a big group as things go. My guess is that well known places like Wind Cave, Cumberland Caverns, Ruby Falls, and all the commercial tourist locations have people trying to survive in them too. If that is true then the smaller ones may have the same thing going on in them, only we won’t know until we stumble on one because they don’t have a radio to say ‘here we are.’”

“Jolly. So do we get shot before or after we knock on the door?”

Kentucky is within our fuel circle that we drew on the map. Even better is that the area that Donovan wants to check out first is within the optimal cone we colored within the fuel circle. Every night he tries to figure our exact location on the map. The only reason we know tonight is because of the bus.

While it has been cold enough to freeze a polar bear’s tail we hadn’t run into any storms or snow yet. The bus was just off to the side of the road leaning really funny. It wasn't too bad but it stood out from everything around it; no, what made it bad was that we knew it was one of our buses. From Convoy 3 to be precise.

Donovan didn’t have any business out in the weather and hobbling in the snow but he was determined, especially after we saw the two graves off to the side. The ground was too frozen to dig graves, they had just piled stuff on top of the bodies. Donovan had me move stuff until we got down to the bodies; animals hadn’t even gotten to them, nor decay. It was almost like looking at someone who had simply fallen asleep in a bad place.

“Donovan, I recognize them. I think they worked for Charlie.”

“Yeah. They had clearance for three but mostly worked in the family area in four. You see any obvious COD?”

“Cause of death you mean? Not on the guy next to you but this one had something wrong with his … oh, ew.”

“What?”

“This guy must have bled out. His sleeve … and what was in it … aren’t … aren’t attached anymore.”

Donovan hobbled around to double check what I had reported and I started looking around the bus.

“Donovan!”

He turned at my call and saw me pointing at the ground where the bus looked like it was sunk into the snow. He came over and then had me help him to lean down and clear out some space around where the wheel should have been.

“OK, see how this sounds. The convoy is rolling along. Bus gets a flat for whatever reason. These guys get out to change it and everything is going SOP but then the jack snaps. Bus comes down on one or both of them and then … move that snow … yeah, when the jack snaps and the heavy bus comes down it bends the axle. Everyone is in shock but they have to keep moving. They bury their dead the best they can, split the personnel between the two remaining vehicles – and that’s a tight fit – and take what supplies they can leaving the rest behind.”

I looked around and said, “Blood on the ground is probably from the amputation. Maybe the other guy was crushed but not squished enough to bleed? Either way it makes about as much sense as we can make without a firsthand account.”

Suddenly I couldn’t remain clinical any longer. I walked off a few yards bent over and lost my lunch. I was dry heaving, trying to not throw up anymore than I already had when there is a napkin in my face. “Breathe in your nose and out through your mouth. It’ll help.”

After I pulled myself back together I straightened up and Donovan was standing right there. “You might see more of this, you might not. You OK with that?”

“What choice do I have? It is what it is. I won’t be sick again.”

“You can tell yourself that if it helps.”

“Donovan, I don’t need any grief right now. Just drop it.”

“I’m not giving you any. Emma, I puked my first three rough assignments. It happens. You eventually get used to it whether you want to or not. But puking right now isn’t a good thing because you are losing calories and fluids that your body is going to need. If you think you are going to puke, stay in the half-track. It’ll be better.” I never know how to take Donovan; he’s a snarling monster one minute and is kind and thoughtful the next.

I didn’t know what to say to him so I said nothing, just nodded my head, scuffed some snow over the already frozen vomit and went back to the bus to check out the supplies that had been left behind.

I brought it all out for Donovan to look over. “I don’t know who was going through these supplies but they need to assign it to someone new. This is a whole case of mixed calorie bars! And @#$%&! you sure don’t leave rope or tarps behind ever!”

We spent an hour picking over what got left behind and then finding places to stick it. Right after I helped a very cold and in pain Donovan climb back into the cab I walked behind the bus for a little privacy to take care of some girl stuff. Coming back I tripped over something and went face first into the snow. I was so irritated and Donovan’s grinning face behind the windshield didn’t help. I brought my fist down on the ground … and heard a dull metal clang. I brushed the snow away and it was a sign for Dover, TN.

I brushed the snow off of me before I got in the cab; it was so cold that we could stay dry so long as we didn’t bring in snow into the cab. I told him what I had found.

“Well we’ve got a problem then.”

“Why?”

“Because Dover is supposed to be on the other side of the Cumberland River. We came straight from Indian Mound and we haven’t crossed a river yet. That means that either we are all turned around, or the river has moved as a result of the New Madrid fault activity, or best case would be that the wind blew the sign onto this side of the river. Drive slow. With this amount of snow we could be on top of the river and not even know it until it is too late.”

“But if it is so cold that the river is frozen over hard shouldn’t we be OK?”

“Maybe, maybe not. The Cumberland has a pretty decent current. If it is frozen completely over that still could mean that the ice is thin in the deeper parts that have a heavy current.”

“Great. Lovely. Just tell me if death is imminent so I can get my affairs in order.”

“You have affairs?” I just gave him a look to express my opinion of his humor as I cranked the engine to life.

From that location we headed due north, him hoping and me praying that we wouldn’t wind up in the water. It was well after dark before we found this place to hole up in for what remained of the night. We don’t even know what this was originally supposed to be. It’s mostly just a big pile of debris that has been pushed up tight against an outcrop of dirt and rock. We couldn’t even set the tent up so we are sleeping here in the half-track. The temperature is really dropping and the wind has picked up. Donovan thinks we are going to wake to a storm which may mean that we are going to be stuck here for a while. Not the best place for this to happen.

Donovan has the irritated look on his face again so I’m going to put this notebook away and then recite a few quick verses in my head. No sense in setting Mr. Cranky off; and besides, it won’t hurt to practice my recall skills for one night.

2 comments:

  1. Wow, those are some really harsh conditions. nothing growing, nothing to break the wind, nothing to burn to keep warm. It's more along the lines of waiting to die slowly than surviving. Other than the boss doesn't sound like there is anything to survive on. I'll keep reading and hoping the sun comes at, does emma have a bikini in her bag? I'm sure Donovan would like to see it, i'm see is from Florida and all.

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  2. I've been reading your other stories as well. Thank you. You have a gift for putting the stories at a more personal level than most. Keep it up.

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