"What the hell was I thinking," he muttered to himself for the billionth time, "Heading north in the winter. Shoulda stayed in Phoenix."
Several little houses dotted the sides of the road. Empty. So many houses were empty everywhere he went.
Except for one. The front door to the house on his right opened. A gray-haired man stepped on to a broad porch, cradling a shotgun.
"Hello, friend," the old-timer called. "What brings you here?"
"Car broke down," the traveler turned and gestured vaguely towards the highway with his right hand, keeping his left covered as he dug in to his pocket for the Glock nestled inside. "Looking for shelter."
"It's cold out. Snowy, too."
"Yes," the traveler nodded, "Yes it is."
"Well, come on in," the old man half turned to the house and gestured inside with the barrel of his shotgun. "I was just making dinner and it's warm by the fire."
The pair walked in to the cozy house. It was warm, lit by the roaring fire from a pot bellied wood burning stove. A pot of something sat atop the stove, bubbling and filling the room with a sweet barbeque smell. The old man placed his shotgun in a stand between a pair of hunting rifles and an AR-15.
"Hate to seem inhospitable," he said, patting the barrel of the shotgun, "But you know how it is these days." It came out as an apology.
"I've made introductions over the barrel of a gun several times in the past week," the traveler said, shrugging out of his overcoat. It fell to the floor, but he kept the Glock in his left hand. "That's why I've got this."
A slight shadow of fear crossed the old man's eyes. "I, uh, I don't have much, but..."
"No, no. No. Sorry." He set the pistol down on top of the rifle stand. "I just wanted to let you know that I'm not going to pull anything on you. Really," he smiled, "I appreciate your hospitality."
"Good, then," the old man smiled. "I'm Ed."
"Rob," the traveler replied, sticking out his hand. "Nice to meet you."
Ed pointed to a worn couch. "Have a seat, friend. Dry out some. Tell me where you're headed."
"Chicago," Rob said, plopping down on the couch. "Figured I'd be there today, too. Damn car broke down, though."
"Lots of people headed there these days," Ed laughed, "It's the only place that's still working. Who'da thought the Democrat machine would actually turn out to be a good thing?"
"Guess it's true," Rob smiled, "God doesn't like Democrats."
"Well, it's like they say. One thing god and the Republicans have in common is that they disappear whenever there's a crisis."
"Who says that?"
"Me, I guess."
"I'm not going looking for order, though. I could have gone to California if that's all I wanted Word has it that they've got stuff pretty much under control out there and it's a lot warmer."
"So why are you going to Chicago?"
Rob shrugged. "I really don't know. Guess it seemed like a good idea. I needed a change of scenery or something."
"I can understand that, I guess," Ed said, walking on stiff legs over to the stove. "Lots of people looking for a fresh start these days." He stirred the pot. "Hope you like beans. I still got a few hot dogs left, too. Cut 'em up and put 'em in the pot."
"Sounds delicious," Rob smiled. "I don't get too many hot meals."
Ed grabbed a couple plates and spoons from a cabinet next to the stove and ladled out the meal. He limped back to the couch and handed a plate to Rob before sitting slowly down in a threadbare armchair.
"So why did you stay here by yourself?" Rob asked between bites. "Or are there still people here?"
"Nope," Ed shook his head, "As far as I know I'm it. But it won't last long."
"They'll be back," he nodded sagely. "People are running to the cities, looking for order and protection. Once the food runs out they're gonna realize that someone needs to start farming again."
"So you think it'll get back to normal around here?"
"Normal?" Ed chuckled and shook his head. "Son, after something happens like what we've been through, you never get back to normal."
"I guess not."
"So, what are you planning to do now?"
"I don't know," Rob shrugged. "Probably find an abandoned car and take it the rest of the way. It's how I got this far."
"Figured as much," Ed nodded. "Tell you what. I don't like the idea of being generous with things that don't belong to me, but the kid next door has a real nice car. It's one of those Acuras and he's always working on it. Shouldn't break down in the middle of winter. If you want to start looking, you might go there. He's not going to be back for it any time soon."
"Son," Ed leaned forward, "He was sitting on that very couch when it happened. One second he was here, the next, well, you know..."
"And let's see if we can't find you a dry coat. I've got a couple old ones down in the basement that'll probably fit you. They haven't fit me in years," he laughed and patted his stomach.
* * *
Early the next morning Rob pulled his newly acquired 2006 Acura RSX up behind a green Mustang on the shoulder of a snowy highway. The previous owner had been kind enough to leave the keys on an old man's couch inside the pocket of an apparently unneeded pair of pants.
He opened the trunk of the Mustang and pulled out a gas can and a length of rubber hose. There was no sense in leaving a half tank of gas sitting uselessly on the side of the road. He opened up the gas cap on the Mustang and began siphoning out the fuel.
Once the gas was flowing he began transferring the contents of one car to the other as quickly as possible. A duffel bag full of clothes went first, followed by a few boxes of carefully rationed canned and freeze-dried food and candy. A toolbox was next, then a bag full of batteries of various sizes. It quickly became obvious that the trunk of the RSX was a little too small.
The guns went in the tiny back seat. He placed a Remington 12-gauge pump action shotgun, a full milspec M4 Carbine and a pair of Smith & Wesson .44 magnum revolvers on the seat and carefully covered them with his new coat. Then he wedged four ammo boxes in behind the passenger seat.
Last, but certainly not least, he dumped a pair of completely frozen gallon jugs of water on the floor of the front seat and dropped a couple boxes of CDs and a half-empty bag of beef jerky on the passenger seat, then shoved a wad of bills in to the glove box.
Once the gas can was safely stowed in the trunk he put his prized copy of Dead Hot Workshop's 1001 in the CD player -- the signed copy he'd gotten from Steve Larson himself at a show back in the late '90s -- and got on the road. The previous day's storm was a distant memory and he shot eastward under a clear winter sky, his unofficial theme song blasting from the Acura's speakers.
I'm gonna get me some peace someday
Guess I missed the boat when the cradle started rockin'
From the womb come a newborn baby
Is the light of day
Any better than that?
Tell me I'm not alone