As the rumble receded westward, a fine layer of dust settled on the tall stack of vintage condom boxes. Jeb reached for a few from the bottom of the pile that weren't quite so dusty and tucked them away in his ruck sack just in case he got lucky. The rumble from the fighter jets returned as they headed back to their base, after bombing their target to hell, to refuel and reload, while Jeb continued to ransack the derelict convenience store.
Some people cursed the apocalypse that the world found itself thrust into, but for Jeb, it had been a blessing. Before Earth was in it's present hand basket, Jeb had been a two time loser with no prospects for a job. He had little education and very few social skills unless it came to drinking games, fist fights, or petty theft. Now the world was his oyster and he lived the life of a king. He ate good, had four new pickups, a big screen tv, and every Jean-Claude Van Damme movie ever made.
His home was out in the woods, far from any major road but not so far that he couldn't run into town to steal what ever he needed. There wasn't anyone in town to object to his raids as they had all lit out when it had passed through the army's hands a few times. Jeb had free run of the place and everything was up for grabs.
The first few weeks, he grabbed nothing but the essentials: gas, kerosene, canned food, bottled water, generators, guns, ammo, and beer. When he had enough to fill his house and barn, he started to make a little cache of weapons and food at all the compass points from his little farm just in case the army got wind of his sudden surplus. When the matter of survival was no longer an issue, Jeb decided to go shopping for some amenities. He turned his fruit cellar into a first class theater, complete with surround sound, every game and system available, and topped it off with a Lazy Boy recliner that would do everything but cook your breakfast. He had enough adult movies to watch a new one every day for the next four hundred years. He converted his back bedroom into the most completely stocked liquor store in creation while his hall closet wouldn't hold one more carton of smokes, snuff, or cigars.
He spent a month drunk in front of the tv before the shine wore off of doing nothing. After combating a particularly nasty hangover one afternoon, he reckoned that it was about time to beef up his security to insure that he could continue his lifestyle and protect himself from bastards who would want to take it away from him. He could cobble a system together from the bank and from the banker's house but this would mean another trip to town.
He gassed up the 4WD, packed some coffee and sandwiches, made sure that the pump shotgun had plenty of shells, and headed off. When he nosed through the brush that hid the trail to his farm from the main road, he noticed the unique imprint of tracks in the berm. These weren't car tracks or bulldozer tracks. These were tank tracks and lots of them. And where you find tank tracks, there is bound to be mechanized infantry to support them. Tanks don't travel alone. There was a lot of troops that had passed this way recently and there was no reason to suppose that there wouldn't be more soon. Jeb took a pinch of snuff and contemplated turning around and heading home but in the back of his mind was the nagging thought that the security of the farm was worth the risk. Besides, he wanted to swing by the sporting goods store one more time and pick up the last case of the traps they had in back.
He drove at an unhurried pace and scoped out the town from a high ridge before driving in. It was as quiet as a church on Monday. He stopped and picked up his traps but didn't linger a moment longer than he had to. The bank was going to be next but it seemed more prudent to save it for another time as it would take quite a while to strip from it what he needed and he didn't want hang around if troops were moving through. No, the banker's house would have enough to do the farm and barn. It would take him a week to get it wired up and by then the army would have moved elsewhere.
The glass of the front door made a soft tinkling sound as it struck the hard wood floor. From there it was easy enough to undo the chain and walk right in. In the hall by the door was the main security box. Jeb eyed it and set down his tool kit next to it. Then he took the pump gun off of his shoulder and started his walk through, tip toeing and leaning around corners. It always paid to be careful. As he went from room to room, he made mental notes of things he intended to come back for on his next trip and was relieved to find the bottom floor unoccupied.
Just as he raised his foot to step on the first stair, he heard a solid thump above him. His sweaty hands adjusted themselves on the stock of the gun as his ears strained to listen with all of their power. The seconds ticked by with a pregnant slowness. Then there was a sound of something crawling softly across the floor above.
Jeb's feet moved with a swiftness that he didn't know he possessed and his climb to the top of the stairs turned into a few quick steps. He turned the knob on the door slowly and pushed the door open with the barrel of the gun.
There, huddled in the corner of the room, was an emaciated woman with long black hair clutching a toddler to her chest with the fear of the devil in her eyes. She held a little steak knife in her trembling left hand and pointed the blade at him.
"Who're you?" Jeb muttered.
"Mrs. Elizabeth Beldon," she said as if this was a more potent weapon than her knife.
The name ran through Jeb's mind, looking for something to connect to. Beldon had been the name of one of the grey-haired dudes that sat on his parole board meetings and had campaigned against his release both times. This codger had been a prick deluxe and railed against Jeb's family, his standing in the community, and his ignorant ways. This fucker had tried his damnedest to send Jeb back to the work farm for the full extent of his sentence and his milk of human kindness had run dry by being strangled out by his greed. Beldon owned the bank and a share in every business in town. He was cold-blooded and lived to make money off of other peoples misery.
Jeb turned the shotgun away from her, "I'm pleased to make your acquaintance Mrs. Beldon," he said. The child turned his face to him and muttered, "Da da?" She shushed him and held him closer as she stared at Jeb. "What do you want?" she asked with venom in her voice.
"I'm from the Red Cross," he lied, "We are actively searching for families who haven't evacuated the combat zone yet. Do you know that you are only a mile from the front lines? You could be bombarded with artillery at any second. I suggest that you come with me to the evac point before this town is just a smoking crater." Jeb was not a smart man but when pressed, he could think on his feet and come up with a whopper of a lie to suit his purposes. Now was just such an occasion.
"About time you got here," she sneered as she stood up. "I've been hiding here for two months, dodging soldiers and waiting for FEMA. You lunkheads sure took your time!"
"Resources are strained to the limit Miss, what with the war and all," Jeb managed to paint on a false smile of apology.
"Let me fetch my things and we will go," she said as if dismissing a servant. Just then a stray mortar shell exploded the gas station by the highway and a fireball erupted into the sky. "No time for that," Jeb said as he grabbed her arm and forced her towards the door. She could barely keep to her feet, let alone keep a good grip on the child, as Jeb drug her down the stairs and shoved her into the truck. Another mortar shell struck the street down the block and flipped a manhole cover like a quarter being tossed to begin a football game. "What about the car seat?" she whined. Jeb jumped in and the motor answered with a throaty roar. He gunned the gas and headed past the newly made crater.
"What are you doing? They are shooting this way!" she screamed as she held her son tight. "They already shot this way! They're goina shoot someplace else now!" he shouted. As the truck lurched past the new hole in the road, her house jumped into the air and cascaded over the street in a rain of splinters. The tires of the truck turfed what had once been manicured lawns of the wealthy until the highway fell beneath them. Then the loud hum of the knobby tires on pavement seemed to lull the boy into a soft song of "ma ma ma," over and over again.
As town shrank into the rear view, Jeb's knuckles turned from white to a vivid red on the steering wheel and the shelling was another distant rumble in the background. As the noise faded, Jeb motioned with a nod of his chin, "There's food in that bag at yer feet. Coffee too." Her hand flew like lightening and barely bothered to move much of the waxed paper wrapping before stuffing sandwiches into her mouth. She ate like an animal and a rivulet of coffee ran down her chin in between bites. She would pause now and then to give a well chewed bite to the boy. She wiped her face on her sleeve in an unaccustomed manner and muttered a muted thanks in between bites. The boy snuggled his head between her breasts and let out a contented sigh and fell asleep.
"Where are you taking me Mr.-" she asked.
"Evac point Omega One," he said casually, "My name's Jeb."
"I can't thank you enough Jeb," she began, "I couldn't stand one more day of trying to scrape up food for Daniel and I. My husband, Donald Beldon, promised to have a convoy to take us to Columbus as he has many friends in the government, but they must have been delayed by the fighting. He was away on business in Chicago when it broke out and couldn't be here to help us. You have saved our family and for that I thank you deeply," she said.
"What was he doing in Chicago?" Jeb asked.
"He was going to secure a new electric chair for the state so the backlog of rebels could be dealt with." she said with a smile of satisfaction until the sharp turn off the road slung her against the door. "Must you drive so fast? Surely we are out of danger now?" She asked.
"Gotta keep moving if we are going to get you to that convoy," Jeb said as he shifted to a lower gear and drove into the woods. Elizabeth watched as the trees went by at an alarming rate and felt more uncomfortable than when she had first seen Jeb pointing the shotgun at her. This was scarier than the months alone in the house by herself. There were no buildings, no streets, no traffic lights, or signs. There was only the impenetrable trees and brush, and all sense of direction was quickly lost. Only the faint trail ahead of her and Jeb was at the wheel.
Her heart almost leaped at the sight of a ramshackle barn in a small clearing and the the truck slowed to a halt. "You go on up to the house," Jeb said, "I need to park the truck where the spotter planes won't see it. There's lots more food and drink inside. Just help yourself. I'll be there in a minute," he promised.
Daniel stirred slightly as she laid him down on the sofa in the front room. He pulled his knees to his chest and clutched the edge of the blanket she pulled over him and slept the sleep of the innocent. She wandered into the kitchen and opened the fridge to find nothing but sixteen different kinds of beer. She grabbed a green bottle and twisted off the top. The five large gulps seemed to settle her nerves from jangled down to rattled. She gasped for breath afterwards but felt that she had finally found some semblance of safety. She dropped the empty bottle into a full barrel and got another. She sipped at it as the first beer found it's way down and she went outside to find her new found protector.
He was pulling a heavy wooden crate from the back of the truck when she sidled up. "Can I give you a hand?" she offered, as she felt it was the least she could do.
Jeb wiped his face on his shirt tail and looked her in the eye. "Miss," he began. "Mrs. Beldan," she corrected. "Mrs. Belden," Jeb smiled, "did you happen to notice the sticker on this truck before you climbed in?"
"No, I was too distracted by the bombs going off. Why?" she said.
Jeb closed the tailgate with a flourish and pointed to an over sized bumper sticker. "Ass, gas, or grass. Nobody rides for free!" it read. "They ain't nobody coming for you or yer kid. They never was. This is the only safe place for a hundred miles and you ain't got no gas or weed" Jeb's smile broadened as he pictured the two of them in the Lazy Boy with the surround sound up. "Now you have to ask yerself, what's safety worth?"
Elizabeth looked him and considered her options.