Fear. It was roiled in the air as thick as the smoke from the destruction in the south. It seemed permanently etched in the faces of everyone that Edward saw.
He had gone to Harlow center to get food and to find out how things stood there. He went to the National Food Collective building and was about to enter when he saw a portly man hunkered down on a low stool just inside the door, a shotgun by his side.
“And what do you want?” the man asked, picking up the shotgun.
“I’m Edward Morrison,” Edward said. “I live out of town a ways, in Leister Cottage. Got any food to spare?”
The man deflated a bit. “Take what you want,” he said. “Whatever’s left, that is. It doesn’t matter anyway, you know. What are we supposed to do when this is gone? There’s no more food coming and money’s no good now anyway. Anyway, did you hear?” He stopped as if he expected Edward to answer. “They dropped a few cancer bombs along with the nukes. We’re all walking dead anyway.” He turned his palms up, helplessly, then sat back heavily onto his stool.
Edward opened his mouth, but what could he say? They had all heard about the Central Bloc’s new weapons. Officially, they were known as radio-mutagenic ordinance—colloquially as cancer bombs. No one knew exactly what they did, but they were supposed to be able to change cells quickly. Some said they caused mutants, most said they just caused huge tumors to grow.
“Where did you hear that?”
“The net. Where else? It could be a rumor, but—” Palms up in the same helpless gesture.
“What’s your name, sir?” Edward asked.
“Kaine Bowlery, at your service. My daughter-in-law is manager of the Food Collective, but she didn’t want to come in. I offered to come stop looters, but—”
“Yeah, I understand. I’m going to go get some things, Mr. Bowlery. It was good to talk to you.”
Edward loaded up a cart with what he could find, which wasn’t much. Even the pet food aisle was almost depleted. He threw the stuff in the car, then drove to Harlow National Hospital. Along the way, he saw a press of cars, loaded with possessions and driving north. The main road was so packed, he parked his car and walked the last half kilometre. The overheard snatches of conversation on the road all formed a common theme. Get away while you can. The fallout’s on it’s way. What’s the point? Cancer bombs. But the kids… What are we going to do now? Dear God, why?
The hospital was understaffed, but still manned by a few brave volunteers. One harried nurse gave Edward a once-over visual triage and seeing no obvious wounds, hurried away.
“Excuse me, I was wondering if you had any anti-radiation medication,” Edward asked, hurrying after her.
She gave him a tired glance, then pointed to the stairs. “Room 309. Join the line.”
She hadn’t been kidding about the line. It stretched all the way down the hall, but it moved fast.
“One box per person,” Edward heard as he got closer. “One box per person, no exceptions! Keep the line moving, please.”
Edward got up to Room 309 and saw an exhausted doctor sitting by the door handing out boxes of pills. A sheet of names with checks by it lay abandoned on the floor. He handed Edward a box with the word Abadocil on it and waved him on.
“I’ve got a woman and a kid at home. They’re sick. I’ll need one for each of them,” Edward said.
“One box per person, no exceptions,” the doctor said wearily.
Edward glanced behind him into the room. It was stacked floor to ceiling with cardboard boxes, all of which were printed Abadocil. “You’ve got loads of this stuff,” he said. “Spare me a few more boxes, please.”
“Look,” the doctor said, “you can’t take all this in one day anyway. Come back to tomorrow and we’ll give you another one. You want three boxes, and the next guy will want 12 and the people after that will want 100. This is all we have, do you understand? We have to make it last as long as possible. Okay?”
Edward balled up his fist, but swallowed his rage and nodded. He left and went home.
Ramya was waiting for him on the porch, looking pale, but slightly better. “I’m so glad you’re back,” she said, giving him a hug and a kiss. “I heard news of looters driving around killing and stealing things. I want to get away from here.”
“And go where, Ramya?” Edward asked. “We can’t go anywhere, especially not with Sean. Rosie could be back at any time, so until then, I’m not taking off to Edinburgh or the Orkneys or wherever people are going to. No hoarders are going to come.”
“Can we at least go into town?” she asked. “I’d feel safer being around other people, instead of out here by ourselves.”
In the end, he agreed. Kaine Bowlery was a good man and he had a gun. Edward did not have a gun, nor had he ever fired one before. He packed up what supplies he could and then the three of them drove into town.
“Where will we stay?” Ramya asked, as they drove down route B180 towards the town. “Do you think there will be any hotels open?”
“Everyone is leaving for the north,” Edward said. “We can probably pick out any house we want.”
“Will Mom and Dad be able to find us there?” Sean asked.
“I left a note on the door to check at the National Food Collective for us.” Edward said. “Don’t worry; they’ll be able to find us.”
Edward picked out a large house on a street just behind the giant National Food Collective. There was a fully-loaded car in the driveway and a man was cramming suitcases into the back. A woman and two children waited inside.
“Where you taking yourself to?” Edward asked, getting out. The man looked up in annoyance.
“Away from here. Scotland if we can make it. What do you care?”
“Can I live in your house?”
“Hell, no!” the man said. “Get back to your own house, you beggar.”
“So, when are you coming back?” Edward asked. The look on the man’s face confirmed what he thought. “You know, I can just break the window as soon as you leave. Plus, if we’re staying here, it’ll keep it safe from looters. You know, if you ever do want to come back.”
“Suit yourself,” the man muttered. He threw Edward the keys and jumped into the car, driving off quickly.
Over the next week, as most people left, the life drained slowly out of the town, like a leaf withering in the autumn chill. Edward drove out to his house every day to see if Rosie or Mason Dodd had returned. The fifth day, when he returned, there were three more children in the house.
“What the—” he started as Ramya hurried over to him.
“They were alone outside, Eddie. The littlest is only three. I don’t know where their parents are, but I think they’re lost. They were hungry and crying. I couldn’t just leave them there.”
“We don’t have food for them all,” he whispered fiercely. “I didn’t even want to take Sean, and now we’re running an orphanage?”
“They don’t eat much, Eddie. Do you want to kick them out, let them starve?”
He turned away with a growl. “No more, okay? I’m not kidding.” He knew as he said it that they were empty words. She would bring more back if she found them and he would let her. What else was there to do?
The next day they got rid of one of the kids, a girl, when her parents came looking for her. Edward was encouraged until a woman showed up with two more children. “I hear you’re taking in children,” she said. “These two were staying with me; their parents were in London. I’d be obliged.”
“We are not taking in children!” Edward shouted at her.
“That’s fine by me,” the woman said, “but they’re not staying with me no more.” She walked away. Ramya looked at him and he swore and kicked the wall. The kids stayed.
Somehow the word spread and more children arrived. A week later, there were nine children at the house, including Sean. Edward made a sign: We are NOT taking in children!! It did no good. Ramya was too soft-hearted and Edward couldn’t say no to her. It was not all bad though. The remaining citizens heard of the impromptu orphanage and helped as they could. The Bowlery family brought them food and one of the doctors brought over a case of Abadocil. A few of the women in the neighborhood came over during the day to help out with the children. Edward tried to give them children to bring home but they said no and he saw fear behind their smiling refusals. No one wanted to be stuck with more liabilities than they already had.
Edward tried to mask his resentment and discomfort. He threw his energy into finding food, getting supplies necessary for the upcoming winter, even cutting wood and stacking it in the backyard. One day he was piling wood when one of the little girls called to him.
“Uncle Octopus! Uncle Octopus, come play with us!” she said.
“Too busy,” he said, then looked questioningly at Ramya.
“It’s the name they’ve given you,” she said, with a smile. “You’re so busy, they say it’s like you have eight arms. Like an octopus.”
“Bah!” he said, but mentally, he smiled. Uncle Octopus. How about that.
(to be continued)