Our beans expired the other day. Well, not exactly. The label says they last two years, the internet says five, but I don’t take any chances. I move the old beans to the kitchen and buy some new ones for the cellar.
Sharon wants to put this place up for sale, market conditions being favourable and so forth. The thing is, homes aren’t all made equal these days, in terms of the construction, I mean.
For starters, this house has a root cellar. A big one. It spans half the width of the house, with dirt floors and an electrical feed and a ventilation duct for outside air. Plus, it’s the only room where all four walls are made of concrete.
The grocery store across town’s got black beans on sale this week. Sometimes they’re labelled turtle beans. That used to throw me for a loop. Normally you drain and rinse the beans before you eat them, but if you’re looking for a quick meal, just dump the can into a pot. Bring it to a slow, steady boil. Add a bay leaf and a pinch of cumin and you’ve got yourself a tasty little soup.
There’s no room in the backyard for a shelter, on account of the swimming pool and the patio and the little shed where we keep the lawnmower and the gardening tools. And we both enjoy the hot tub. We’ve only had it for about a year and Sharon really needs the hydrotherapy on account of her sciatica.
Sure, I was worried about the ceiling at first. The root cellar’s basically underneath the veranda and you never know exactly how the structure might collapse after a direct hit.
I’ll tell you something. It’s so easy going shopping with a pick-up truck. Drop the tailgate and slide your stuff right in, you don’t even have to bend over. I can’t imagine getting by without at least a mid-sized SUV. These people with their passenger sedans and their little bullshit hybrids just don’t get it. I’m glad those days are behind me.
The jack-posts and the railway ties made a big difference. Bring on the artillery shells, this thing is built damn solid. Sometimes I put my headphones on and download an old war movie and sit there in the dark, eyes closed, listening to the sound effects, imagining our town being bombarded.
They’d hit the police station and the fire department first. Then the high school and the hospital, then probably the power grid and the railway bridge above the creek. They never bomb the animal shelters. If you need pain killers or surgical equipment, that’s the spot to go.
Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten August, 1939. Let me refresh your memory. The Nazis staged a false flag operation in Eastern Germany. They dressed up like Polish soldiers and seized a radio station, got on the airwaves, broadcasted an anti-German message spoken in the Polish language. Can you guess what happened next? Is this ringing any bells? In the morning, in response to their “aggression,” Hitler’s army rolled across the border into Poland.
There’s twenty four cans in a standard case of black beans. Each can’s got forty-three grams of carbohydrate and fifteen grams of protein, not to mention the iron and the fibre. You can use the empties as containers, or slice them into strips to make repairs.
People thought I was crazy at first. My neighbours said some nasty things. But they came around, what with the virus and inflation and the gun crime. Especially the gun crime. Why anyone thinks they need more than a few handguns is beyond my comprehension.
The trick is to think about the shelter like a sailboat. You’ve got to make use of every square inch, be inventive when it comes to storage. It’s a big room as far as cellars go, but we’ve got a lot of stuff down there: hammocks, seeds, hand tools, bottled water, gasoline, butane, camping gear, extra clothing, books, batteries, flashlights, ammunition, gas masks, first-aid kits, potassium iodide, penicillin, rubbing alcohol, crossbows, a bench grinder. I tried not to drill too many holes in the walls for hooks and shelving and what not. When it comes to concrete, moisture is the enemy.
Can you believe my own Father tried to talk me out of it? He even had the gall to ask me how I planned on paying for everything.
I told him, “Things are different now. Get on the computer and do your own research, you’ll understand it pretty quickly.”
“But why the bull bars? Why the solid rubber tires? Why the extra gas tank on the roof?”
He’s always been a skeptic. The kind of guy that says he’ll believe it when he sees it.
I said, “Turn on the TV around eight o’clock tonight, you’ll see plenty.”
“Son,” he said, more softly. “Where’d this body armour come from?”
I asked him about his pension. About his mutual funds and dividends and social security cheques. I said, “Guess what Dad? That stuff IS my pension. That truck IS my social security.”
Between the dirt floor and the air vent, we had things pretty easy on the retrofit. Though I’m still not sure how much I trust the plumbing. And like I said, we’ll see how long the power even lasts.
We’ll only be down here for a month, maybe two months tops. If we can’t bug out by then—we’re in a lot of trouble.
The plaza was jammed. Pretty typical on Sundays, according to Sharon at least. The only open spot was in front of a lamppost mounted on a waist-high concrete base. I parked the truck and took my list and went inside. On my way back out, I saw the strangest thing.
Two men were riding in the van. Both wore mirrored glasses despite the gentle rain. The passenger climbed out quickly, heading for the lamppost. White guy. Heavy-set. Safari hat, khaki vest, scuffed black army surplus boots.
It was the bumper stickers that really caught my eye. You know what kind. A green snake coiled on a yellow backdrop. A plain black horse. Flags and flags and flags.
I slowed my pace, barely moving, obscuring my position and trajectory.
The man turned his shoulders and slipped nimbly past my truck. He stood at the base of the lamppost and grabbed the metal cover that hides the anchor bolts, working it loose, slipping it up the pole, exposing a recessed space underneath.
I pushed my cart across the lot and stopped behind some garbage bins, pretending to be looking at my phone.
The object he retrieved was too small to be identified. It looked like a grenade. He fiddled with it for a moment, then he put it back in place. He lowered the cover and jogged between the cars and hopped inside the van and sped away. I raised my phone and snapped a blurry photo as they pulled onto the street.
The incident played out in under five minutes. What struck me was his total nonchalance, as if the rest of us were flaccid rubes, too meek to intervene.
I dropped the gate and put the groceries in the truck. I rolled the empty cart across the lot and shoved it under the gazebo with the others. I reached into my coat and grabbed my keys. The post was only steps away. How long would it take to check beneath the cover? Thirty-seconds? A minute?
I started up the truck and left the door half-open. I walked briskly to the post and grabbed the cover. Then I stopped.
I felt this strange sensation.
Like I was being watched.
I scanned the lot and saw an old brown station wagon parked about fifty yards away. The man behind the wheel was staring straight at me. The nature of the old man’s gaze sparked a panic in my guts. He had violence in his eyes, something primal. Something that I’ve read about in books. I shrugged it off as a coincidence, until I saw his plates. The car was registered in West Virginia.
I was rattled. I’m not ashamed to say it. If you’re not rattled in a situation like that, you’re just plain dumb.
I couldn’t shake the feeling in my stomach. Like I had witnessed something more than simple mischief, something more than petty crime. Sedition. Conspiracy. Domestic terrorism. Something truly evil.
I’m sure right now you’re thinking, Come on buddy, get real. But when’s the last time you stopped to ask yourself a simple question: What is real, anyway?
Real is what you see when you look outside your window. Real is what you hear from your neighbours, friends and family. Real is what’s ten inches in front of your face, what’s in your heart, what’s in your goddamn soul. How about world history—that shit real enough for you?
I was halfway home when I pulled onto the shoulder and called the special number.
Our conversation lasted almost twenty minutes. The agent sounded bright and young and wonderfully efficient. And did I mention polite? He even called me ‘Sir’.
He thanked me for the information and said the Bureau would follow up if they had any further questions. He said to keep the photo just in case. He seemed impressed with both my recall and my situational awareness. He said that everyday citizens like me were keeping other people safe.
It’s so refreshing to deal with a competent person for a change, not a robot, not some overburdened call centre in butt-fuck-God-knows-where. Why can’t the hospital or the DMV run as smoothly as The Bureau? Why can’t every institution for that matter? This whole country would be better off.
I was moving beans from the cellar to the kitchen when I started doubting my decision. The West Virginia plates had spooked me, no question about that. But should I have looked beneath the cover anyway?
Imagine my phone call with the Bureau if I had photographed the object. Or better yet, if I knew exactly what it was. They’d be offering me a job right now. A few years behind a desk and then who knows. I’m still pretty young. I could handle field work. Sure, I’d need a little training, but I’m no slouch when it comes to physical exertion. I can still do fifty push-ups in a row. Last week, I ran a five minute mile on the health club treadmill.
After Sharon went to bed, I drove back across town. Once she straps on that sleep apnea mask, she’s out cold till morning.
Back in college, this girl who lived in our dormitory got raped in the ravine that runs along the county line. She told the cops they wore balaclavas and didn’t say too much, but she knew they had to be around her age—she could tell by their jeans and sneakers.
Folks in town didn’t wait for the results of the investigation. A group of vigilantes snuck into the woods one night and torched the homeless encampment. State authorities had to call in air support to stop a full-blown forest fire from breaking out.
Looking back after all these years, something about that whole damn incident just doesn’t add up. What was the girl doing in the ravine by herself to begin with?
The plaza parking lot was mostly empty. Cars clustered near the all-night diner. Workers stocking shelves inside the supermarket, cleaners going aisle to aisle with mops. Tractor trailer stationed in the loading dock, yellow lights flashing on and off along its flank.
I parked and waited for a while. I’m not sure what I thought would happen next. I was worried that the Bureau was already surveilling the location and I’d be mistaken for a terrorist, innocent victim of my own whistle-blower tip. But the more I thought about it, the dumber all that sounded in my head. Besides, I don’t look much like a terrorist anyway.
I pulled on my hood and a pair of latex gloves. I approached the post and grabbed the cover, lifting up and wiggling gently, the way the suspect did that morning. Once I had the space, I reached up underneath, feeling for the grenade or the beacon or the plastic explosives.
My fingers grazed a smooth round surface. I grabbed the grenade and worked it loose and shoved it in my pocket as I hurried to the truck.
It felt pretty light for a grenade. Then again, I’ve never actually held a real grenade before. Back in high school, I had this cigarette lighter that looked exactly like a grenade. Even that was heavier than this. I was never much of a smoker, by the way. I just liked the way the flame flicked on and off.
I shut the door and switched on the overhead light. The grenade was actually a small plastic jar with a red plastic lid. Sharon has a few of these at home. She uses them for picnics, for cucumber dip and salad dressing.
My fingers trembled as I unscrewed the cap. I was worried that it might explode into my face. I’d be scarred for life. I’d have to wear sunglasses to work and to the movies and the shopping mall.
I set the lid on the passenger seat and tilted the jar toward the light. The only thing inside was a folded paper booklet covered in hand-written, alphanumeric codes:
Nc3 f5, E4 fxe4, Nxe4 Nf6
My heart pounded. Secret bank accounts. Passwords. Cryptology. Launch codes. You really think that no civilians helped the Nazis? You think they had no networks, no militias, no covert operatives? Don’t kid yourself. These people are out there, even now. These people are all around us.
I drove home slowly, trying not to panic.
I had beans to move.
I had a family to protect.
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