The electromagnetic pulse attack on the U.S. destroyed communications and transportation across the country. Shortages of food, fuel, and other resources created massive unrest as society began to break down. Gangs proliferated, growing in size and power to take what they needed. They raided the countryside looting, killing, and raping.
Jason, his partner Anne, and her two daughters, Catherine and Sarah, lived in an isolated mountain valley. They had successfully defended themselves from an attack by one of the gangs. Now Jason was determined to search the nearby town to confirm the remnants of the gang had departed. No one wanted him to go alone, and since Sarah had been injured in the battle, they decided that the older daughter, Catherine, should accompany him while Anne stayed behind to tend to Sarah’s wounds.
After a long day of hiking they reached the river and, while still under the cover of the woods, Jason carefully examined the town with his binoculars. It was quiet — no sign of life. A stray piece of paper blew along the main street. A door swung open and shut in the wind. It had the look of a ruin, a civilization lost.
The two descended the ridge, waded across the river, and started through the deserted town. The silence was disturbing: no sounds of people or commerce; no traffic.
They came upon the remains of a large fire. Scattered around it were human bones. Catherine shivered and looked away. She kept close to Jason’s side, even though they were both armed. Nothing disturbed the silence except the wind, which preceded the rain that was to come that evening, along with the haunting thoughts of the horrors that had taken place.
There was very little to salvage: a few tools from the hardware shop and a package of sanitary napkins which Catherine quietly slipped into her backpack. In a shed behind the general store Jason discovered two partially-filled bags of seed: corn and wheat. Beyond those few items, there were only the structures themselves.
They spent an uneasy night in the shed behind the store, being awakened by the sounds of the rain, prowling animals, the creaking of the shed or a door banging as a stray breeze went past.
At the first graying of the eastern sky, the two of them quickly shouldered their packs and departed. With a sense of relief they waded back across the river and climbed the ridge. Soon they were hiking the fields of their valley on their way back home, putting the desolation of Clifton Forge behind them.
Later in the day, as they walked along, Catherine began talking: “We came so close to death, three times now.”
“Yes, and the last two times you played a big part in helping us prevail.”
“There’s been so much killing. I feel I’ve changed quite a bit.”
Jason looked at her. “I think you have. You’ve matured. You are more sure of yourself.”
“Well, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. I want to get all of this killing behind me, out of my system.”
“We all need to put it behind us. It was necessary, but it’s not healthy. You’re right, we need to move on but I’m not exactly sure of how we do that.”
“Just carrying on our routines may not be enough.”
Jason turned to face Catherine. “I don’t know what else we can do.”
“I do. I want to have a baby.”
“What?” He blurted out.
“You heard me.”
“But that would be too dangerous.”
“No it won’t.”
“There’s no medical support for giving birth anywhere.”
“Women have had babies forever without hospitals. It’s a natural thing to do,” she explained.
“But you’re too young. And where will you find a young man? There’s no one around.”
“I’m not too young. I’m eighteen and I’ve killed people and almost been killed. You yourself just said I’m more mature than others my age.”
She’s right, he thought. Even before the fighting experiences, Catherine had been a mature teenager. These battles had developed her even more into a no-nonsense, self-confident woman.
“Yes, you have grown up a lot since I’ve known you, but there’s no one around.” Jason said. “We can’t go to Hillsboro or some other city; who knows what’s going on there. Besides, it would be too long of a trip.”
Catherine met his eyes. “I want to have a baby with you.”
Jason stared at her dumbfounded. He had not seen this coming. Yes, they had developed a deep relationship. They had saved each other’s lives. Catherine had killed for him and had shown great courage. They shared something special, even beyond what he had shared with Anne, but Jason had not expected this.
“I don’t want to just survive,” Catherine continued. “I want a future. I want to know there is a future. Babies are the future. We’ve survived so much, but it is only surviving. I want to build a future, Jason. Who knows what is happening out there? Who knows if things will ever return to normal? I don’t want to just hang on, waiting for things to get better. I’m not sure I believe we’ll ever be the same as we were. Maybe this is all we have, but it’s enough.” She held him with her gaze, speaking as energetically and forcefully as he had ever heard her. “And it’s not like you don’t find me attractive. I’ve noticed you checking me out.”
Jason started to protest, but she reached up and touched his lips to shush him.
“I know you would never go after me,” she said, looking straight at him. “I figured that out before I allowed myself to warm up to you, but I know we can make this work, and I can think of no finer father for my baby.”
“Catherine,” Jason said, “the desire for new life is normal. Maybe it’s a reaction to all the killing—an affirmation of life after so much death. But what you’re asking will tear us apart. We’ve all bonded as a family…but this?” He paused. “Have you talked to Anne about this?” He was trying to buy time while his brain still reeled from her announcement.
“No, I haven’t. I needed to talk to you first. And I think you should be the one to talk to her.”
It was not lost on Catherine that Jason used Anne’s name, not her title: Mom.
“I know our relationships will change, but we’ll survive it,” Catherine pressed on. “Life has changed, and we’re surviving it. It’s not incest; we’re not related.” She still held him in her steady gaze. “I realized that new life is what I could have inside of me. I can bring new life to our family and move us forward. Sarah’s too young and Mom is too old. Jason, I know this is the right thing to do! Please say you will talk with Mom.”
Her chin began to quiver. Jason saw that she was expending every ounce of her considerable courage to broach this subject. He shook his head in wonder and doubt, but he realized how carefully he needed to treat Catherine at this moment. She was laying herself open to him. He had to be careful not to crush her at this moment.
“Yes, Catherine, I will talk to Anne about this.”
She reached up and quickly kissed him on the cheek. Relief spread across her face. They turned back to their hike, and Catherine slipped her hand in Jason’s. They walked silently, hand in hand. He looked over the field towards the setting sun. The late afternoon haze filtered the light and gave a soft yellow glow to the valley and hills. A mist was starting to rise from the creek to join the haze. High on the ridges the scarlets and yellows were just beginning to emerge, while the lower slopes were still clad in their greenery.
Such a beautiful place; no wonder Anne didn’t want to leave.
He felt at home in a way he had never felt before. He breathed deeply, and there was a musky scent in the air: the smell of coming fall. Every season had its signature smell, but spring and fall were the most pungent. By summer the heat had burned off the freshness of spring, and in the winter the cold and snow seemed to lock up all the smells. He belonged here, to this time and place. They walked on in silence. Jason sifted Catherine’s proposal over and over in his head with mounting concern. Catherine had raised an issue that could tear apart all that had been achieved. This was uncertain ground, a far different challenge from any he had faced before.