Two miles past the exit for Finzel, MD on Interstate 68 was a billboard. Not the usual screaming ad mounted on a column, drawing attention for miles. This was a homemade affair, the sort of thing only a passenger noticed. Set back into the scrubby pines of the always seemingly hard-scrabble forest covering the hills of western Maryland, hand-painted but still tasteful, facing sideways on the northbound side, it read: “This Way to the Hen House” and then provided directions from the next exit, a rural side track on old US 40 that led nowhere and promised nothing besides the mysterious Hen House.
Parker had passed the billboard countless times on her way from DC to West Virginia University in her college days and, later, between the same two sites for business. She was the child of a displaced Appalachian family: Grim West Virginia pessimism fleeing the Ohio Valley in the war years and blending with the queer southern hustle and sweat of DC. She was the granddaughter of a man and woman who pined for the harsh simplicity of their childhood hills to their dying days, and the daughter of a woman born in a rented dirt-floor Parkersburg shack and raised in a suburban rancher outside DC which World War II bought.
Parker. Black sheep. The first of the family born in DC. Belonging neither to the city nor the hills, most of the time feeling that she didn’t even belong to her own family. Life as a dream, rolling past her in increasingly unforgiving waves. Forty years gone and no family of her own. No time, no desire, to try and establish a home. How strange, then, to become a post-apocalypse den mother…
School, business, travel… The trappings of responsibility, expectations, and the duties of life. That was the old world. Her old world. But not even the apocalypse allowed her to escape the role.
Now the Hen House billboard was no longer quaint roadside Americana, an oddity that, maybe, some day, if there’s time, might be worth a side trip on America’s byways. Now it was camouflage. A fading remnant, behind which her guards watched the dead Interstate.
She arrived – this unexpectant den mother – with 27 people. They’d stripped the land during their desperate flight up I-68, weaving through the dead traffic. They piled supplies into the backs of trucks. They hit Wal-Marts, they hit pharmacies, they hit grocery stores, they hit homes, restaurants, anything promising. They ignored the bodies of the dead, they fired over the heads of the few frightened survivors that chose not to join them, they were holy hell. And she regretted it. Every minute of it. But when she decided to make a run for the country, it was about survival. For the first time in her life, she was awake. Alive.
Finzel stuck in her mind. A sleepy little town. That stupid Hen House sign. Now a road was cut through the struggling pines and the tangled undergrowth behind the sign, leading to an outpost of 35 souls. A Jeep was always parked just behind the sign, at the head of the obscured ruts leading into the forested hills, and always manned by two well-armed watchers. Everyone spent their lives hoping nothing would again come down I-68. Farther back, a converted firetower kept an eye out in all directions. And, shielded by forest and the natural curves of the rolling land, farms and houses formed the heart of her community. Parker’s people.
First came the end of the world. The government, always, lying. The people, always, fighting. First came the lies, the corruption, the downfall. Then came survival. Every person for themselves. Guns, food, water, life. Every pretense of a civilized world dissolved in a heartbeat. A heartbeat is all there is between regular broadcasting and static. Between the panicked voices on the airwaves and…well, nothing. The end. Silence.
When it happened, Parker was home, in Glover Park, trapped in DC, wondering if her end had come. What do you do when the world stops spoon-feeding you? Despite the malaise, she couldn’t complain. She had a nice life, a nice house. Her little city car, so useless now that she finally needed it, was parked against the curb outside a home that political lobbying had built. A career that needed an apocalypse in order to escape. She was privately thrilled.
Her backyard stared down, with sublime manicured poise, at the forested expanse of Glover Park in the Northwest quadrant of the city. The TV and radio shouted static, half the neighbors had fled and the other half were hunkered down and sandbagged in. Next, the lights would go. The water. Before all that, law and order. What possible future did she have when the power died? When the cars wouldn’t start? When the natural wildness in Humanity took hold of her neighbors and dog walkers and baristas turned into rapists and murderers?
Parker wondered if she was the sort of person they would talk about in history books…if there was going to be a future history. She became the leader among leaders. The tough brunette who fought her way out of the city, gathered supplies and followers, and led them to safety in the sad rural expanse of western Maryland, where the winters now killed in a world without technology and the summers were about prayers for crops, for rain, for survival, and for fewer and fewer raiders…
The latter prayer had been answered. Ten years now of tenuous survival off of the land and even more strained political infighting. The raiders were thick at the start, forcing Parker to post scouts behind blinds along I-68 and the parallel mother road, Route 40. A jury-rigged radio tower allowed coded communication, until too many parts went bad. Time took its toll. But so did the angry new world, and the raiders started to vanish. Every spring, lives lost. Both out there in the dead world, and behind the Hen House sign. Until recently, Parker had maintained one last blind, conveniently placed on a now crumbling overpass that had been consumed by nature. Young Oak trees grew on a decaying concrete span 12 feet in the air. That, along with the two guards behind the now faded and illegible Hen House sign, was all that was needed. More than was needed. It was a boring job now. The short straw job. Chatting or snoozing for endless hours, cold coffee from a thermos, picnic lunches, almost tedious enough to make the guards wish they were out in the fields, repairing the community’s buildings, or perched in the watchtower mentally playing king of the hill.
What everyone wanted was to be part of the raiding party. God, wouldn’t that be awesome? The guard jeep could no longer move. Tires had been removed, the engine cannibalized, a tree was growing through the hood. Everything was used to make the community’s patchwork Land Rover run. The pride and joy of Charlie Gates and Lance McGavin. Parker’s raiders.
Gates and McGavin had held up in an old warehouse between Fort Totten and Takoma, in DC. They’d stockpiled and hoarded. They defended with man-traps, Molotov cocktails, and crack shooting from a thousand hiding places. How Parker had managed to coax them out was a mystery to all of her people. Leading her flight from the city along the railroad tracks, she and her people were pinned down by Gates and McGavin who, apparently, tried to murder anything that moved. In the early days after the fall, that’s the sort of thing city raiders inspired. Kill or be killed. Live and let die.
Parker finally told her people to hang back. She tied up her hair, stripped off her gunbelt, and walked leisurely into the kill zone.
Gates and McGavin don’t talk about what charmed them from their snakepit. Within an hour, they were out apologizing, and two hours later they were loading up their 18-wheeler with supplies and joining Parker’s people, her rag-tag party leaving the tracks, taking over trucks, and painfully threading their way through suburban streets and onto the Beltway. Though Gates and McGavin never really socialized. They stuck together, brought up the rear, and snarled at everyone except Parker.
She knew the need for compromise. She was a politico. It was her genius. She let the boys slide when they didn’t want to become farmers. She told them: Pull your weight or get out. They became the raiders. They went out in a Ford and came back with a Hummer full of supplies and dragging a U-Haul. Parker and her people gave them shopping lists and, once a week, they’d drive off. Maybe for an hour, maybe for three days. They’d check off every item on the lists. From candy to gasoline to books to penicillin to Legos. As the years took their toll, they traded out the Hummer for an old school Land Rover, which seemed to welcome creative mechanics and bubble-gum patches. The old beast craved hard roads. The boys once returned with a flat tire and, when one of Parker’s people pointed it out, the boys looked down surprised and shrugged it off with a grin. Real cool cat shit. If they wanted to, Gates and McGavin could take over. Retire Parker to a cottage, snicker at her graying hair, tell her that the harder world needed harder people. Angrier. More violent. And they were violent. When they pulled onto the broken remnants of I-68, or US 40, or Finzel Road, they became raiders. They became what everybody hoped would go away.
Gates and McGavin were no threat. They weren’t leaders. And they could never lead Parker’s people – the weak and scared, sheltering under their savior’s wings, hunkered down in the forest, dousing the lights at sunset, baffling chimney smoke, always keeping out of sight. Parker’s people dreamed about the old world. They wanted it all back. It was owed to them, it was their birthright. They wanted to walk down crowded streets with music in their ears, to live thoughtless pleasures, nose to the grindstone, check’s in the mail. They knew it would never return. You couldn’t live through The Fall and not see the truth. You couldn’t battle your way from the dead capitol to unincorporated Finzel without seeing the full pantheon of human horror.
But everyone lives in the past. Everyone is always coming home.
Parker gave them what they wanted. Behind the Hen House sign was a miniscule mockery of civilization. Rural chic. The sun rose on bustling farms, men split logs for fires, women made bread and prepared meals, both toiled in the fields. A small police force manned the firetower, the overpass lookout (now just on occasion), and the decaying Jeep forever watching I-68 westbound for refugees fleeing the eastern cities. A fear that was becoming imaginary. The stuff of nighttime tales to the new batch of young children, schooled by Parker herself who acted as teacher, scientist, judge…monarch.
There was routine. In a way, the anarchic Gates and McGavin might simply be the final touch on Parker’s brilliant canvas. The traveling minstrels with tales to tell. Her indulgence in the increasingly esoteric shopping lists was necessary for the survival of her community. When the storytellers returned from the empty world, they not only entertained, they brought gifts from the past. Relics of the old world, which Parker allowed to become a commodity, a currency. The collector of useless machine parts became rich, a day’s work bought for a bottle of scotch that had festered on a forgotten shelf for a decade, an extra ration at suppertime for a rusty can of shaving cream.
Parker was not immune. She had the boys get her a plasma TV three years after The Fall and the flight to Finzel. She even plugged it in, though the socket would never again feed it electricity. She found herself lonely without a TV hanging on the wall, dominating the room. It was her concession to her empty life before everything fell apart. When people met with Parker, eyes moved towards the TV. The unspeaking great eye, another member of the conversation. Almost everyone wished it would flicker to life, throw up a comforting face telling them it was all over, it was all a dream, a new America had begun and they were welcome.
The children weren’t drawn to it. Those born after The Fall, and those who don’t remember. They treat the TV like children would treat a picture on the wall. It just didn’t register. Parker gave them books, also trucked in by Gates and McGavin. They found more life in the yellowing pages than they did from the black box on Parker’s wall. She marveled at children reading and enjoying classics, she prided herself on the brave new world that sprang from her mind fully grown.
Parker’s people were happy. Well, as happy as they could be, considering. They all carried ghosts with them, many still cried themselves to sleep. From the shadows, Gates and McGavin dealt briskly in long-expired pills and moonshine. Somewhere, out beyond the Hen House sign, they harvested marijuana. No doubt a local’s old field grown wild and free. The world, for them, was easy pickings, and they traded on nostalgia and escapism.
But every community has these problems. Parker turned a blind eye. What happened behind closed doors, and under cover of darkness, was private business. That, too, was part of her genius. It takes a village, yes. It takes a village to ignore sins and suffering. That truism remained from the old world.
The majority found escapism in work. After a decade, mourning was fading into simple survival. Working a farm, cutting wood, maintaining the community was an all-day business. Working together without distractions, building new families, and no longer polluted by passive or aggressive inhumanity helped. Everyone worked for something, everyone pulled their own weight.
Freedom from the chains of the old society came with a problem. Waking up, seeing the world, surviving the horrors, and carving a refuge to start again only served to illustrate one thing… The fragility of life, of peace, of expectations. The old society’s stock and trade was immortality. Health care, anti-aging cream, artificial hearts, miracle cures, vitamin waters, and an infinite array of snake oils sold by massive corporations. After The Fall, mortality became a bedmate. Jack Otongo broke his leg in the seventh year repairing the side of the firetower. He died of a simple infection. The flu took little Lucy Rich in the fifth year. In the ninth year, 35-year old Martin Cleary drunk himself into a stupor and fell asleep under a tree when a cold snap moved in. A fever took him ten days later.
Rural chic indeed. But could they complain? They had survived the impossible. They should all be dead. Their continued existence was a fluke. Attitudes changed. People didn’t think about hair loss, or hiding the grey, or covering up wrinkles. Humanity had returned. And, with it, the stoic rural realization that every story must have an end.