Tomlin considered that for a long time. "We're in desperate times, Lee. I'd've done the same d.a.m.n thing if I were in your position. There's no need to apologize for taking precautions."
Lee's lips tightened. "It's good to have you."
Tomlin looked at the floor. "Yeah."
"Do you think you'll be able to go back?"
"To South Carolina?"
"I dunno. Probably not to the same people. I left them without explanation. There one day, and gone the next." Tomlin smiled grimly. "No, all I can do for them now is help you stem the tide. Maybe once all this is over, and I can explain why I left..." He trailed off.
"Once all of this is over?" Lee said with a chuckle.
"Yeah. Why? You don't think it's going to be over?"
"I'm sure it will one day. But it's going to be a long d.a.m.n time."
LaRouche woke up slowly from a poor night's sleep. He'd slept for periods of perhaps an hour, only to wake up with strange dreams that flew away from the grasp of his recollection and left him feeling on edge. The last time he awoke it was past 3 a.m. and he figured there was no purpose in continuing to try to sleep. He felt more exhausted each time he woke. The nervousness of the coming day would not allow him to rest tonight, so he would wait, and perhaps tomorrow, when they were on the road and the mission was in progress, he would sleep better.
He lay in his bed-a few thick blankets lain atop cardboard-for a long time, staring at the ceiling of his shanty and watching the tiny s.p.a.ce between the two sections of plywood that comprised his roof s.h.i.+ft from black into deep hues of blue. Cold air surrounded him and the air from his lungs turned to fog and drifted up to the crack in the ceiling. He waited for the sounds of other people, but it was still too early and time was sluggish in the cold, pre-dawn hours.
He was only growing more impatient.
"f.u.c.k it," he mumbled and threw the covers off.
He was still mostly dressed. It was just too d.a.m.n cold at nights to strip down, so the only thing missing was his boots. He slipped them on and shuffled his feet around in them, trying to impart his body heat to the cold leather interior by creating some friction. He left them unlaced and grabbed his rifle. It was too early in the morning for his tactical vest.
Too early for rifles, for that matter.
He pushed away the multiple layers of blankets and one tarp that served as his door. He probably had more blankets in his shanty than most, and he rarely left a blanket behind when he found it. They were cus.h.i.+on, warmth, and insulation. LaRouche had never realized how essential and how useful a blanket could be.
Outside his shanty, he looked up at the sky and found stars staring down at him, clear and crystalline. Dawn was still an hour away, and to the untrained eye, the sky was still dark. But a person that lies awake in the cold nights can see even the slightest change in the color of the sky.
Gonna be a clear day. Maybe even a little warm.
He meandered between shanties full of sleeping families and couples. People that had someone else to cling to in the night. Someone to give them warmth and comfort. It struck him that modern society had robbed something from people when their lives and beds were so comfortable that they preferred to sleep alone. Man wasn't meant to spend these nights by himself. The pleasure of human company in these hard times overcame any number of personality quirks that would have become "deal breakers" in the old world.
We got so picky, he thought to himself. My steak's not cooked right, and my bed doesn't align my spine properly, and my wife just put on some weight.
Who gives a f.u.c.k?
LaRouche could recall any number of women that he'd dated, only to delete them from his phone and avoid them at all costs because their laugh was weird, or she left her wet towel on the bathroom floor, or she had too many cats.
Now he'd give anything to have one of those women in his bed at night, warm and soft, and maybe just maybe, he'd sleep the whole night through.
Like the rest of these f.u.c.kers. LaRouche made a face as he pa.s.sed a shanty that was rumbling with someone's loud snoring. How did you sleep that deeply when it was almost thirty degrees out? Unbelievable.
He reached the large circle of ash ringed with stones. He knelt down over the rocks and held his hand close above the ashes. There was still some heat there. He stepped over to a large and mysterious mound that sat a few yards from the fire pit, covered by a tarp. He lifted the tarp and tossed it back halfway, revealing a stack of wood and kindling.
G.o.d bless all the people that did the ch.o.r.es around here. The hunting and the gathering and the splitting wood for fires. Of course, LaRouche had his own job to do and it came with its own unique set of challenges, but not once had he gone to this stack of wood and found it depleted.
He grabbed up an armload of kindling and two split logs and carried them to the side of the fire. He brushed the ashes away and revealed the glowing embers underneath. He placed the kindling over this patch of coals and blew on it steadily until the embers began to blaze hotly and the kindling caught. Slowly but surely, he nursed the fire back to life.
He stared into the flames for a long time, feeling the heat on his face as the fire began to envelop the split logs, the splinters burning and curling back on themselves, the bark beginning to steam and bubble as what little moisture was left inside of it boiled. In those long, hypnotic moments, his mind left him and travelled to a kitchen with white cabinets and gray granite countertops and the smell of strong coffee. His parent's house in Tennessee. The bright, early morning light seeping through the bay windows of the breakfast nook. The way the sun felt warm coming through the windows, but you could look outside and see the frost s.h.i.+mmering on everything. The way the house felt almost too hot when you came in from the outside, the vents kicking out air that smelled of home, a box of a dozen fresh donuts in his hand. That was breakfast, and would be the only thing they ate until Thanksgiving dinner in the early afternoon. A dozen donuts to fuel a day of turkey frying, cigar smoking, and backyard football.
He thought of their faces. His mother, his father, his younger brother. Faces that would gather around the island and look at each other with that tired affection of waking up to a full house of long-lost family, in town for the holidays. Tired, but comfortable in their belonging.
He missed them, but he tried not to think about them, because he knew they were probably dead. It felt cold of him to think it, but he wouldn't fool himself into a false hope. The LaRouche family was nothing if not pragmatic, and they would not want him to labor under the a.s.sumption that they had survived against all odds. They'd lived just outside of Nashville, and likely hadn't made it. His dad would run a hand over his thick salt-and-pepper goatee and adjust his gla.s.ses and say, "Son, you worry about yourself. We can manage just fine."
"I see you couldn't sleep either?"
LaRouche jerked at the interruption to his thoughts and looked up from the fire to find Father Jim standing there beside him, his arms tight around his chest and the hood of both the parka and the sweats.h.i.+rt he wore underneath, up over his head.
LaRouche smiled marginally and looked back into the fire. "I gave up on it about an hour ago."
"Yeah. I've been lying awake for awhile."
"What's bothering you?"
Father Jim chuckled. "Death? Dismemberment? The unknown?"
LaRouche laughed quietly. "Yeah, that'll keep you up at night."
"Let me guess: big responsibilities and fear of failure?"
"Swing and miss, Father." LaRouche rose up and stretched his legs.
"Well, I'm not a mind reader." Jim held his hands out to the fire.
LaRouche let the silence stretch for a minute. "You have family, Jim?"
"No. Never married. I've got a mother and father, but they live in upstate New York, so..."
"I guess I should say 'lived'."
"Do you know that they're dead?"
"They were pretty old."
LaRouche eyed the ex-priest. "Any thoughts? Devotionals? Words of wisdom?"
Jim smiled. "How about a verse of the day?"
"Okay. I'm listening."
Jim squeezed LaRouche's shoulder and spoke with the quiet confidence of a clergyman: "'But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved. Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see'."
"Hm." LaRouche considered the words for a time. "How do you keep all of those scriptures in your head?"
Jim laughed. "Oh, I don't have an encyclopedic knowledge of The Bible, unfortunately. I know...that doesn't make me a very good priest, but then again, I never pretended to be a very good priest." He sighed. "No. The scriptures that I'm able to quote directly are only because I've quoted them to myself every day since this all began, trying to remind myself that I'm gonna get through this."
"You have doubts?"
"I always have doubts. It's human nature to doubt. But faith isn't the absence of doubt, it's the decision to believe in something contrary to what you observe."
"So you believe that we'll come out of this okay?"
A faint smile. "I've made the decision to believe that there is a purpose to all of this, that everything works together for the glory of G.o.d, and that whether or not my own personal survival is in the cards, what we're doing here needs to be done, and will be done."
"What if the purpose is to wipe out the human race?"
Jim looked at him askew. "What if there's no G.o.d?"
LaRouche seemed taken aback by the suggestion.
"You can gloom and doom it all day long, and I guarantee you won't beat me at it-my family's Irish-catholic."
LaRouche chuffed and rolled his eyes.
"Positive thinking to us is expecting the worst and hoping it's over quickly."
"Okay," LaRouche laughed. "You've got me beat."
"Hopefully you've learned your lesson." Jim adjusted his gla.s.ses and spoke sternly. "Don't ever try to one-up me on depressing thoughts, ever again."
"So, you're ready for this?"
Jim thought about it. "I suppose so. You?"
"Yeah. I suppose so, as well."
CHAPTER 27: TRAITORS.
Marie made a special breakfast that morning. She began cooking when it was still dark, and continued on until everyone had eaten. She viewed it as her job to keep everyone fed, and with the two groups due to depart later that day, she felt that it was her duty to cook an extravagant breakfast, or at least what pa.s.sed for extravagant at Camp Ryder. It became apparent as she cooked, that she'd been hiding away stashes of goods a little bit at a time. Things that she normally didn't use in the regular cooking. Things like sugar and cinnamon-things that were hard to come by.
So Camp Ryder and its members that had volunteered to go out to the east and to the north, to blow bridges and rescue refugees, felt like kings at breakfast, and full of good food and lifted by the light-hearted conversation that went with it, they left to gather their things and say their goodbyes.
Lee, Harper, and LaRouche began to arrange the vehicles into two columns and to load the LMTVs with their respective payloads of ordnance and munitions, as well as stocking the Humvees with extra ammunition, food, and water. After a while, they were joined by Wilson and Lucky, who helped load in the last couple hundred pounds of C4 and several crates of claymore mines.
As they worked, the day began to warm slightly, and they even began to sweat, though it was quickly chilled from their foreheads once they stood still for a moment. The jackets came off, and they worked in just their hoodies and sweaters.
Gradually, the vehicles were filled to capacity and the volunteers began to trickle into the square, stowing their packs in the rears of the vehicles they would ride in or drive. As the work became lighter, and more and more of them stood around in quiet conversation, the jackets were donned again.
When they were finished, Lee met Harper and LaRouche between the two columns of vehicles. He'd left Tomlin upstairs in the office to avoid having to explain things repeatedly. Bus was aware of the situation, and Lee was sure that everyone in Camp Ryder would hear it from the good old fas.h.i.+oned grape vine soon enough.
He put a hand on each of their shoulders. "You guys feeling okay about this?"
"Sure." LaRouche nodded.
"I guess," Harper said, a little less confident.
"I have to work with Tomlin to resolve a couple issues," Lee continued, quietly. "As soon as I can make sure everything is secure back here, I'll be joining you, LaRouche, out east. You both have a half-dozen repeaters in your supplies, so make 'em count and stay in contact so we can coordinate, okay?"
"Roger that," LaRouche sighed. "How long do you think you'll be?"
"No idea." Lee shrugged. "I'll ballpark it at a week."
Harper looked at him gravely. "Just be careful, Lee."
Lee smiled. "I'm always careful."
Lee took his hands from their shoulders. "Take it to 'em, guys."
Without another word, they mounted up and a chorus of diesel engines rumbled to life up and down the columns of vehicles. Lee stood in the middle of them and crossed his arms over his chest, feeling sick to his stomach. If there was anything more nerve-wracking than being in danger, it was sending others out to be in danger without you.
The sentries pulled the front gates clear of the road.
In the side view mirror of the lead Humvee, Lee could see Harper looking at him. His face was pure concern, but when Lee made eye-contact with him, he smiled bravely and flicked a salute off his forehead. Lee returned the gesture, and the Humvee rolled away.
Harper's convoy left first, followed immediately by LaRouche's. The long train of vehicles kicked up dust as they trundled out of Camp Ryder, slowly and deliberately out into a hostile world, and in less than an hour they would be in unknown territory, amongst unknown threats and unknown people. They would adapt and overcome-they would have to. Everything depended on it.
Out of sight from Camp Ryder, down the winding dirt road that led away from safety and security, Harper's lead Humvee reached the end of the dirt road and the beginning of the blacktop of Highway 27. The column slowed to a stop as though waiting for a break in traffic before continuing. Then the Humvee's tires scratched over the gravel, turning right, towards Highway 421 that would take them north, towards their destination.
The column of vehicles split in the middle, half going right and half going left.
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