The Long Walk Home comes out tomorrow. This is an edited version of the first chapter. Enjoy!
It was Friday morning and I was headed to the break room for my coffee, then back to sitting in my office. I was almost back to my office when the lights flickered, then went out. “Well, shit,” I muttered. I made it to my office with the light coming from the front windows. As I picked at my doughnut, I realized how quiet it was.
I grabbed my flashlight and headed out to the front of the store. There were no cars moving out on the street. A few people had raised their hood and were looking intensely at their engine, willing it to work. I walked back to the office and I grabbed my cell phone, it was dead, but I had just taken it off the charger before I left home two hours ago. “Oh, fuck,” I said, out loud.
“What’s wrong, Sophie?” my office mate, Alice asked.
“I think we have been hit with an EMP,” I said, dropping into my chair.
She laughed, then looked at me. “You’re not joking, are you?”
“I wish I was,” I replied. “I’m getting out of here before the chaos begins.”
“Shouldn’t we just wait for help?”
“Help ain’t coming,” I said. “They don’t have working vehicles either. The military might, but they aren’t coming here to Birmingham to go house to house.” I watched the truth of my words set in.
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to grab some food, water, and cash, then go to my car and get my hiking gear and start walking towards home. Do you want to come? You live on the way to my house, don’t you?”
“You will go by my road, are you sure you should do this? Why don’t you wait and see what happens?”
“Because the longer we wait, the less daylight we will have and the more people will be out being assholes. Make up your mind, I’m leaving as soon as I get my shit together.” I grabbed my flashlight and went back to the breakroom to get my cheese sticks out of the fridge and six bottles of water. Then I grabbed my turkey jerky and meal bars out of my desk drawer. I opened the safe and put in an IOU for $200 and took out the cash in small bills.
“Why are you taking money?” Alice asked.
“Right now people still think it’s valuable. I can get food and stuff I need on the way home with it,” I explained.
She walked over to the safe and put in her own IOU. “You’re right. My husband has been telling me for years that something like this was going to happen. He will go get his son from school, then start walking towards me.”
“Go grab some bottles of water and let’s get out of here. Do you have extra clothes or a blanket or anything in your car?”
“My husband put a bag in there, just in case.”
“Thank God. Don’t tell anyone that we are going. No one else lives out where we do and there is no reason for them to tag along.”
She grabbed all the food from her desk drawer, got some water and we went out the back door to the parking lot. I used the key to unlock the trunk and grabbed my backpack. Then I got in the back seat and changed into my hiking pants and shirt. It was mid-September, but it would get into the mid to low 50’s at night in the hills where we were headed and I had no faith that we would cover fifty-six miles before dark. We would likely be sleeping outside for the next couple of nights. I prayed it wouldn’t rain.
I got my jacket from the front seat and started stuffing it into my bag. My husband’s small 9MM was in the pocket. I had forgotten to give it back after my walk last night. I stuck it in my pocket and thanked God for my forgetfulness. I just wished I had a pocketful of ammo to go with it.
Alice changed and dug her bag out of her trunk. I pulled everything out and quickly made sure she at least had the basics. Her husband had done better than I had in some ways. She had an emergency sleeping bag and some quick-dry shirt and pants. She had a life straw and a collapsible bladder and water treatment tablets and a nice knife. Her first aid kit was better supplied than mine and she had four freeze-dried meals.
“Do you have a gun?” I asked.
“Yes, it’s in my purse.”
“How much ammo do you have?”
“I have a full clip and two extras and I know how to use it, my husband makes me practice.”
“Put it where you can get to it quickly. I’m not going to put my holster on until we get out of town but I have a small pistol in my pocket. Once we get out of town I’m going to wear mine out where anyone who would want to bother us can see it.”
“Okay, do you really think anyone will bother us?”
“I hope not, but I’m expecting it. You ready?”
“I guess so.”
“You know that there is no way we will walk fifty-six miles before dark, right? I have a small emergency tent, you have an emergency sleeping bag in your bag, we will be ok. Your bag has stuff in it I didn’t think to put in mine.”
She paled a bit, then took a breath. “Let’s go!”
We walked the six blocks out of town without attracting any attention at all. Everyone was so focused on their phones that didn’t work and their cars that wouldn’t run, that they didn’t notice two women walking down the sidewalk in hiking gear. We crossed the bridge out of Birmingham and started our journey north towards home.
“It was around nine when we left, we have about nine hours of daylight. I mapped walking with Google maps before. It said 19 hours, but I think that was a bit optimistic considering half of it is uphill.” I pulled my .22 pistol out of my bag and strapped it on my hip.
Those first few hours we walked in silence, each lost in our own thoughts. There weren’t many cars stalled here and the ones that had been abandoned already. This two-lane road didn’t have much traffic, most people preferred to drive 80mph on US 22.
It seemed to take forever to walk the six miles to the first small town on our route. I turned toward the gas station and diner. “Why are we stopping?” Alice asked.
“Bathroom break, and maybe get some information about what we are facing. It takes me ten minutes to drive here, we just spent like three hours walking here. We should probably get some extra food before people start to panic.”
“Ok, I just want to go home.”
“Me too, I just want to get there safely and in one piece.”
The door to the diner was propped open and we went inside. They had candles lit and we were greeted warmly by the owner and his wife. There were several other people inside eating. “We are emptying the freezer before the gas cuts off, come on in.”
The man pointed at a table, “Have a seat, we are at the Brunswick stew- burger level of the freezer, which will it be?” he said, smiling.
“The stew smells delicious, I’ll have that,” I said.
“I’ll take a burger,” Alice said.
It was quiet in the diner. Everyone either ate in silence or whispered to their companions. The food came and it was even better than it smelled. I had two bowls of stew and probably a half-gallon of sweet tea. “This is probably the last time we will eat in a restaurant, maybe ever,” I said, quietly.
I didn’t realize that the owner was behind me. “You’re right. I have a ham radio and it seems it is this way over most of the country. Where are y'all walking to?”
“Sipsey,” I said.
“You have a ways to go. I’ll have my wife put some stew in a jar for you, do you have a way to heat it up?”
“Yes, sir. We have small pots and a folding grill.”
“I’ll be right back. Go on into the store and see if there is anything you need. You have a long walk ahead.”
He came back with two jars of stew and refused to take any money. “That’s no good to anyone anymore,” he said. “But you might find someone on your way who still thinks it is. Keep it, it might come in handy on your journey.”
The only thing we took from the store was a few energy bars and some chocolate. “Thank you for the meal and supplies.”
“You two be careful out there. It’s a whole different world now than when we got up this morning, don’t forget that.”
“We won’t,” Alice said, hugging him.
We stepped outside and back on the road. It had taken us roughly three hours to walk six miles. That would mean two nights at least out on the road.
“We have about five hours of daylight left. Let’s make the most of it,” I said. “Google was way too optimistic, I think it will take us around two more days to get home.”
“Well, my husband told me never to tell anyone this, but I guess it’s okay to tell you now. He has an old truck that he says will run even if we are hit with an EMP. He will go get his son and then come for me. I’m sure he will take you home too.”
“I hope that truck will run, but no one knows for sure because this has never happened before. So, let’s plan like we will have to walk the whole way just in case. I haven’t heard an engine since this started. I was hoping some good ole’ boys would have their trucks going by now.”
“You’re right, but it will be awesome when he comes.”
“Yes, it will.”
It was so quiet. No vehicles running, no planes flying, no televisions or radios playing, even the birds were strangely silent. Occasionally, when we passed a house, we would hear a dog bark, but we hadn’t seen another person since the diner. Which I didn’t think was a bad thing at all.
“The sun is getting low in the sky, we have about an hour left to find a place to camp tonight, so keep an eye out.”
“I can’t believe this is really happening. I thought Russ would have picked us up by now. I don’t want to sleep outside,” Alice said, with a touch of panic in her voice.
‘Shit,’ I thought. ‘Why did I bring her? No good deed EVER goes unpunished. Why do I never remember that until it’s too late?’ I took a deep breath.
“Look, the school was chaos, I’m sure. It likely took a really long time to get his son. The truck wasn’t just going to crank on the first try. He had to change the points and stuff first, so don’t panic that he didn’t come today. He prepared you to sleep outside for a reason,” I said, with much more patience than I felt.
“You’re right, I’m sorry. If it wasn’t for you I would still be at the office in that horrible neighborhood waiting for help that won’t ever come. You probably saved my life,” she said, tearing up.
“Stop that shit right now! No crying on this trip, there will be plenty of time to cry when we get home. Just start looking for a place to camp. Someplace with cover, but not too far from the road and water nearby would be good too.”
We were coming up on an older farmhouse that I had always admired as I passed. As it came into sight, I noticed motion on the front porch. I stopped to figure out what it was.
“Y'all come on up here, I won’t hurt you,” came a voice from the porch. It sounded like an older woman.
I looked at Alice, she shrugged her shoulders. “It’s up to you.”
“Let’s go, but slowly. If I run, follow me. Keep your hand on your gun.”
We began the trek from the road to the house. When we were maybe halfway, I could see the woman sitting in a rocking chair with a shotgun across her lap.
“Where y'all walking to?” she asked.
“Sipsey,” I said.
“That’s a far piece,” she said.
“Yes Ma’am, it is. Could we camp in your yard tonight? We won’t make a mess and we will leave at first light.”
“Absolutely not! I have food going bad in my refrigerator and beds just sitting there not being used. Y'all are welcome to have supper and stay the night. I’m hoping my grandson will come and get me tomorrow and I sure would appreciate the company tonight. I’m Maude and welcome to my home.”
Alice looked at me and I nodded. We still had around thirty-eight miles to go and I wasn’t going to turn down a real bed. “I’m Alice and this is Sophie. Thank you so much for having us.”
“Thank you, Ma’am, we would love to take you up on your offer.”
She smiled a huge welcoming smile. “Y'all come in, supper will be ready shortly.” She opened the front door and the smell of a beef roast cooking made my mouth water.
“That roast was for Sunday dinner, that won’t happen now I guess. I thought I’d go on and cook it so I’d have it to feed Josh when he comes tomorrow.”
“Where does he live?” I asked.
“Fayette,” she answered. “He told me if anything like this ever happened, he would come and get me. I should have moved over there a long time ago,” she sighed.
We followed her into the kitchen where the centerpiece was an old gas stove from the 30’s or 40’s in pristine condition.
“The tank was just filled yesterday,” she continued. “Josh always has it filled before the cold weather sets in. I have a well that has a hand pump, would y'all mind filling up those buckets with water for me? We can heat some up to wash up with if you do.”
“Gladly, you are doing so much for us we will help you all we can,” Alice said.
By the time we had finished, she had supper on the table. Roast beef, mashed potatoes, green beans, cornbread, and peach pie for dessert.
“I’m gonna have a glass of wine with my supper, if it won’t offend ya’ll and ya’ll are welcome to join me if you like.”
“I won’t be offended at all and I would love a glass myself,” I said.
“I would love one too,” Alice added.
She lit an oil lamp and placed it on the table. It was the best meal I had had in a very long time. It sure beat the freeze-dried stuff I thought I would be eating tonight.
We cleaned up the kitchen and washed up with warm water, then we sat out on the porch to finish off the bottle of wine.
“How long have you lived here?” I asked.
“I have always lived here,” she said, laughing. “My daddy built this house in the ’30s and I was born here. Two of my brothers were killed in WWII, the other one came back and got married and went to work in the coal mines near Jasper. He died in a cave-in in the ’70s. When I got married, my daddy had just inherited my grandparent’s house up the road, so my parents moved out and my husband moved in. I turn 93 next month and I have never lived anywhere but here.”
“I would never have guessed that you are 92. I thought you were in your early 70’s,” Alice said.
Maude beamed at her. “Thank you, young lady.”
She told us stories about her life until the antique clock on the mantle struck ten. “Well, you ladies get some sleep. The sun’s not up good until 7 now, so I’ll fix you a good breakfast so you can start tomorrow on a full belly.”
She gave us each a nightgown and showed us to our room. Then she went to her own bed.
“What a sweet woman,” Alice said. “I hope her grandson does come to get her tomorrow.”
“Me too, I hate to leave her here alone.” I turned my solar lantern on low and put my gun under my pillow.
“So far this hasn’t been too bad. We’ve had two amazing meals and we are sleeping inside in a real bed tonight.”
“We did around sixteen miles today and I think the most we can do tomorrow will be twenty unless your husband shows up in his truck, we will still have one more night until we get home.”
“I think I was in shock all day today. I’ll do better tomorrow, I promise.”
“You did fine today. Don’t worry, we’ll get home. I feel bad for the people in the cities though. They will start panicking and dying in the next forty-eight hours.”
“Thank you for getting me to leave this morning.”
“It was selfish on my part. It’s safer with someone to watch your back.”
“Well, I know I wouldn’t have even tried if you hadn’t done this. Thanks, no matter the reason.”
“Get some sleep. Tomorrow will be a long day and we most likely won’t have a house and a bed to sleep in tomorrow night, so enjoy this one.”