Pure vanilla extract, Martha writes. Dutch process-cocoa powder. Italian plum tomatoes, green and black olives, olive paste. Anchovies, anchovy paste, capers, chickpeas, mustards. Italian oil-packed tuna, low-sodium chicken broth. Oils: olive, toasted sesame, truffle. Canned fruits, chutneys, fruit jam, preserves, pickles, artichokes, and relishes. Assorted pasta: spaghetti, penne, rigatoni, fettuccine, lasagna, orzo, couscous. Flours: unbleached all-purpose white and whole wheat. Quick-cooking polenta, stone-ground cornmeal, long grain brown and basmati rice. Black-eyed and split peas, black, pinto, and cannellini beans, green lentilles du Puy. Pine nuts, almonds, hazelnuts, currants, dried apricots, dates, and figs. Vinegars: aged balsamic, red and white wine. Pure maple syrup, molasses, cane sugar, and honey. Sea salt, Himalayan and Celtic. Surely there must be more. Martha refreshes the webpage of the ebullient chef, who is as famous for her retro outfits as her cuisine, and produces her own show on the Food Network. Martha watches the channel every day, since she’s barely employed and her modest alimony barely covers the household expenses and health insurance; she must cook more of her meals at home now. She opens another browser, types PANTRY LIST, pen poised above her tablet.
New results, but from sites she doesn’t recognize. She clicks on the top link, “Preppers Guide to Food Storage,” from a site called MerryPreppers. “Your prepper’s pantry will be the building block of your family’s survival system,” the page begins. “Have you read our guide, ‘37 Items to Hoard Before a Crisis’? If so, the list below of essentials to stockpile will likely be familiar to you.” Martha has not read the guide, and she’s no stranger to crisis. But this was a different kind of crisis, one she has never really considered. Was there truly a need to stockpile food? How did she land here? A quick glance and the list contains many of the staples the celebrity chef recommended for her “perfect pantry”; others are foreign to Martha: powdered milk and eggs, canned butter, freeze-dried food, vodka, and MREs. Canned butter? Such a thing exists? She skips over, “Desserts for the Apocalypse.” A column of ads runs down the right side of the page; an attractive young woman poses, hand on hip, in camo gear, and above her a logo for Mountain House—what’s that? Following the list of must-have foods is another list, this one of steps: budgeting, rotating your stockpile, buying in bulk, storing heirloom seeds. Five billion people have less than a week’s worth of food at home, she learns, and when ‘SHTF,’ grocery stores run out of food in three days. She drops the pen, rubs her clammy hands on her jeans.
This story appears in Blakeslee’s
forthcoming story collection,
Martha snaps shut the laptop, paces a few steps, then grabs her list and purse. Moments later, she combs the endless rows of the grocery store, dizzy. Is it possible, the kind of crisis that would make the delivery trucks stop coming, for long enough to cause panic? She gathers tomato paste, olive oil, wild-caught tuna, pauses, for the first time, before the wide selection of jerkies, then moving on, pauses again to stoop before big tins of powdered milk on the bottom shelf. How much is her budget? She swings by the canned goods aisle again, grabs a few more varieties of beans, does the same at the dried nuts and fruits. After all, no harm in being prepared and these are all items she uses. At the checkout, the clerk, a round-faced young woman likely in high school or college, says, “Doing a little stocking up?” Martha’s pulse leaps, and she lets out a shaky laugh. “Oh, just a bit, you know, hurricane season,” she says. The clerk shrugs and smiles strangely. It is May. She brushes off the bag-boy’s offer of help to her car, pushes her cart at a clip, loads the trunk. The tins of gourmet sardines, anchovies, and tuna bust through the bag, and tumble across the bottom.
That afternoon Martha picks up a shift at Marvelous Mid-Century. As she rings up 1960’s Playboys and record albums, her thoughts turn to the evening ahead, and how to avoid the crisis of a long evening alone. Her son, Steven, will arrive home at five o’clock and go for a bike ride, not get home until after dark, heat up some leftovers from the fridge, and then hole up in his room on the computer for the rest of the night. She doesn’t want to end up sitting alone in the backyard again, the barren lot of the rental house still so foreign to her, crying and fighting the urge to buy a pack of cigarettes, even though she has not smoked for twenty years. She must find something to do, be among friends. Sally, who owns the vintage shop, emerges from her back office and announces she’s off to pick up her son, still in high school. Thank goodness Steven is no longer in school, and Martha doesn’t even mind he didn’t go to college but found a simple job as a bike mechanic at a mom-and-pop; his autism steers him toward the repetitive and tactile. He’ll never live on his own, of course, and Martha is lucky to have a lifelong friend in Sally, who is luckier to still have alimony and child support, enough to fund her next chapter as entrepreneur. Otherwise, Sally would be in Martha’s situation—post-divorce and having to beg friends with small businesses for a part-time job after decades as a stay-at-home mom. Something they have talked about a lot, over wine at Sally’s. Three years out and Sally is now comfortable in her post-divorce skin, whereas all Martha feels is unmoored.
“Is there anything going on tonight?” Martha asks. “Any art openings, jazz shows, that type of thing? If I stay home one more night I’m going to fall apart.”
“Don’t do that,” Sally says, fumbling with her large purse, laptop, and bank deposit. “I’m supposed to meet Jason to hear a Latin band. Why don’t you come?”
“Third wheel. Great.”
“With us? Don’t be silly. Just come.” Sally’s voice bounces off the back hallway, and the alarm beeps as she exits.
Customers drift in and out as closing time approaches, and Martha takes solace in the pleasant, if perfunctory exchanges, the bands of her high school days playing on the Zenith, the finds people bring to the counter: a macramé wall hanging, a Members Only jacket, a breadbox. But as soon as she locks up and climbs into her car, loneliness enshrouds her. She takes a side road, avoids going through her old neighborhood. Up until a few months ago, she was living in the house she and Warren, her ex-husband, owned for twenty years, a two-story five-bedroom with wide porches and a pool. She stayed in the house until the divorce went through and it finally sold. At least she found a rental in a decent, middle class neighborhood, behind a Publix. The mid-century concrete block ranch badly needs remodeling. She hates how quickly the dust collects on the hardwood floors, and no matter how often she scrubs the countertops, the kitchen never feels clean. She heats up leftover pasta, hastily eats alone. Next door someone bangs the screen. Then yelling, a thud, and someone drags a trash can to the curb. She knows no one on this street. The house diagonal from hers is shuttered, the car covered—snowbirds, her guess—and the house on the corner is another rental, four cars in the driveway, its inhabitants often blasting loud music.
What happened to her home? Her life? Because she doesn’t feel like she has one; her husband tore that from underneath them both. Only he has his new townhouse with his mistress—now girlfriend—and she’s here, left to piece together what’s left. What is left, at forty-nine? Her breathing shakes a little as she applies her makeup, and she pauses to clutch the counter and steady herself. What’s going to happen to her—no resume, no skills, and the alimony barely covers expenses. And when that runs out in a few years? Warren blew so much money; they have practically nothing saved for retirement. Eighty years old, will she still be working in a vintage shop? Grief and depression have shattered all her illusions that the world is safe, and able to provide happiness. How to get that back, and will she ever feel anything other than beaten up, weakened by distrust? She turns out the lights and flees to her car as if pursued by ghouls.
Martha meets Sally in Winter Park, at a jazz club located inside a converted warehouse. Sally orders a cabernet; Martha, as much as she wants a drink, orders a sparkling water instead. The two sit at a cocktail table, the sparkling water fizzy and bland. Martha says, “How long did this last for you? I mean, what else do I do? Every day I can barely function.”
“You’re doing the best you can. Go easy on yourself.” Sally sips her wine, gives a little wave to Jason, whom she’s been seeing for seven months. Jason, tall and lean, bends to check sound equipment on the stage; he’s a musician, helps run the place. “What else should you be doing? Just get out, meet people. Like tonight.”
“Sure. As long as they know I’m in no shape for dating.”
“Of course not. That’s the last thing you need. Just live your life. What about taking up some new interest or hobby?” The band trickles out, settles into instruments. Jason strolls over, clasps Sally’s hand and sits. He’s some kind of engineer by day. Sally met him after a literary event. “Life falls into place like love—when you’re not looking for it.”
“A hobby—I can’t even think of what. That’s just it, I can’t think. Everything is a fog.” Martha munches goldfish crackers, dismisses the thought of how they’re loaded with salt and fake dye.
“Look, for me it’s been three years to get here.” Sally pats Jason’s forearm—rather hairy, Martha thinks. Her husband had beautiful forearms and hands. Like a Michelangelo. “What did I do? Started the shop, that certainly kept me busy. Exercised. All that-be-kind-to-yourself stuff.”
“Nothing feels like my life. Even cooking. I’ve lost my passion.”
“Hey look,” Jason says, and leans in. “At least you’re not in Venezuela right now. You know what one of the guys up there just told me—the drummer? That back in his parents’ neighborhood gangs have taken over the streets, running black markets. That they’re charging crazy prices for a sliver of soap or deodorant, and people are so desperate they’re lining up to pay for these guys to cut them a tiny wedge off a cake. Imagine that, huh?” The lights dim; Martha’s stomach sinks. “Not to make light what you’re going through—I’ve been there, myself—but hell! Could be worse. You’re gonna be okay.”
The band starts, the stage awash in a bluish tinge. The drummer wears a big smile, body rocking as he plays, trance-like. On either side the seats brim with silver and grey heads, wrinkled necks, spotted hands. Lately she finds herself humbled and in awe at those who have lived so long—even for those comfortable enough to afford the cover charge and a bottle of wine, like the elderly couple to her right, the man slightly hunched and wheezy, the woman stout and fidgeting, both neatly attired in blazers and dress shoes. What have they endured? Another three, even four decades, fraught with more losses and heartbreak—how will she make it? The music cocoons her, a temporary shelter. Maybe that’s enough sometimes, just to get you from place to place.
Driving home she thinks of what Jason said, about the crisis in Venezuela. Not long ago, wasn’t that the most prosperous South American country? If that kind of collapse happens here (and who is to say it couldn’t – look at how her own life fell apart, out of nowhere), shouldn’t she also have toiletries and basic first aid items on hand? At the intersection nearest her house, the 24-hour Walgreen’s stands aglow, a temple of simple, yet vital, necessities. It’s nearly eleven, but she parks, hurries in. Where to begin? She squints. Soap and deodorant are a no-brainer, after the story from earlier; she grabs a three-pack of each. Bottles of ibuprofen and aspirin, razors, toothpaste and floss, baby powder, contact lens solution. First aid: assortment packs of Band-aids, creams, ointments, gauze, hydrogen peroxide and rubbing alcohol, iodine, witch hazel. What about lice treatment? Hand sanitizer, suntan lotion, bug spray, aloe, Imodium, tea tree oil, disinfectant wipes. Q-tips, cotton balls, nail files, face cream, cough drops. The heavier the basket grows, the more its contents pull her along, but slowly—she needs to take in the aisles, be sure she’s not missing something. Only when the items are falling from the top does she plunk her selections before the clerk. The customer before her, a gritty-looking man in stained jeans, warily eyes her basket as he grabs his pack of cigarettes and Dr. Pepper.
It’s past midnight when she bursts in the front door, sets down the two bags like barbells. Steven’s door is open, computer casting him in silhouette. She calls out hello. He ambles out, crusty pasta bowl in hand, stops. “What’s all that?” he asks, bloodshot eyes narrowing. “Oh, just some bathroom stuff,” she says, shuffling past. She kneels and makes room below the sink for the peroxide and other tall bottles. Back in his room, Steven says, “I’ve found the most insane electric bicycles on Youtube, you’ll never believe it.” Martha listens to him describe the details as she shoves her purchases in the drawers and medicine chest, says how interesting that is, how neat that he came across such bikes. Another twentysomething son might say, “You went to Walgreen’s at midnight?” But she knows never to expect that from Steven. His mind is a monorail, gliding on the same well-worn path.
Finished, something in her feels quelled—not quite like she smoked a cigarette, but almost. She peels off her clothes, elated, and flops on the bed. She’s not going to be screwed over for a sliver of soap, not after everything she’s been through—she’s got her own, and plenty, thank you very much! Just let them try.
Martha decides to consult MerryPreppers.com again, about the pantry essentials. But she ends up reading about water. Contamination is evidently a huge problem in any crisis, and poor sanitation quickly leads to the spread of disease—she knows this, but how has she taken such a vital necessity for granted all her life? In a short-term crisis, water service may be restored in days or weeks, but a larger event such as a solar flare or EMP could disrupt power and water treatment plants for years. MerryPreppers recommends several water filters offered by one of their sponsors. Martha follows the link to Amazon, selects a water filter widely used in developing countries. The filter can supposedly kill 99% of bacteria and pathogens and supply a household with clean water for up to three years. Other customers also bought purification tablets; she adds these too. Is that sufficient? She’s not sure, but this is all her budget will allow, for now. Her total comes to just under one hundred dollars. Before she clicks “pay,” she notes the row of suggested items and clicks across. Inflatable water “bricks,” reverse-osmosis pitchers that remove radioactivity, IOSAT tablets—what is all this, and who is buying these things? Does she really think she is ever going to use this filter? Maybe not, but she likes knowing that she’ll be prepared. She writes on her list, in what she has learned is order of necessity: “water, food, shelter, protection.” Then crosses out “protection” and writes “guns.”
All throughout the week, in between ringing up vintage TV Guides and Polaroid cameras, she visits different prepper sites, creates lists of budgets and to-dos. TheMotherofAllPreppers.com provides lots of handy PDFs and checklists, which she later prints out at home. OrganicSurvivalist.com shows a comprehensive chart of tried-and-true emergency heirloom seed vaults; maybe she’ll get into gardening, after all. PrepperJane.com advocates to female preppers that “just because SHTF, there’s no reason to have to go without makeup” and offers an e-book on DIY recipes for face and body products when you buy from her essential oil line. Some of the more male-authored sites she visits, too—lots of ex-military and special ops persons, eager and willing to share expertise, with a focus on defense, guns and ammo, and “bugging out” upon wilderness terrain. At SurviveCollapse.com, she follows debates about which freeze-dried food companies offer the best quality and which to avoid, whether she ought to buy ready-to-eat meals. Her wish list on Amazon grows.
One day when she’s home the mailman’s radio squawks as he climbs the porch steps. A moment later, the bell trills. She leaps up, swings open the door. “Here you go,” he says gaily and thrusts forward a package first, then her mail. “Oh,” she says, surprised—it’s for Steven, a bicycle battery he’s long awaited from China. The mailman pushes up his shades, turns away.
“Wait,” she says. “I’ll be receiving more packages soon. If you could just stick them here”—she jerks the porch chair forward, gestures to the space behind, shaded by a potted plant—“I would really appreciate it.”
“Hide them, you mean?” He gives a curt nod. “Sure thing. Thieves swiping packages off porches is rampant, unfortunately.” Sweat masks his face, the bottom of his thick moustache dark with damp.
“Have you ever taken one of those women’s self-defense classes?” Martha asks Sally. Heat blurs the vacant parking lot of Marvelous Mid-Century. Sally is changing out a mannequin for June, from sharp-cornered mod dress to lacy wedding gown, while Martha reorganizes a jewelry case. “You know, the free ones the police department gives?”
“No.” Sally wrestles with the mannequin’s arm, which refuses to snap into place. “Why?”
“Why not?” Martha fiddles with the antique silver bands, spreading out the variety of gemstones. Sally’s written a little sign: PERFECT ENGAGEMENT RINGS – 20% off! “Didn’t finding yourself suddenly alone make you feel unsafe—vulnerable?” She bumps a metal tree and the chandelier earrings shake. “Maybe I’m just feeling so raw that I’m paranoid.”
“Has working here helped at all? I hope,” Sally adds with a chuckle. “What about something fun, like going on a trip? Or an art class, or a writing group. You know, express your feelings.”
“I’m too Mary Poppins for that.”
“I know, I’m being a smartass.” The alabaster arm snaps into place.
“In the winter it’s dark out when we close up. The craft beer place next door got robbed.” Martha props the sign beside the rings—sapphires sell the best—and locks the case. “There’s a class this Saturday at noon.”
“Only if we can go to lunch afterward.” Sally flits to the hat display, and Martha resumes her place behind the register. A woman their age pulls up and gets out of her Mercedes, slings her yoga mat onto her mole-speckled but well-toned back. She walks erect, purposefully into the studio next door, reusable water bottle in hand. A pang of longing erupts in Martha’s sternum, a churning mix of jealousy and mourning. The 3:30 Happy Flow—that used to be the class she attended. Jaw set, she blinks back hot tears. David Bowie sings from the speakers. Beneath the plaza sign the sun’s rays glare off a vagrant man’s shopping cart.
Martha doesn’t tell Sally, but she attends a foraging class in Jay Blanchard Park in the early morning before they’re to meet at the Winter Park Police Department. The teacher is somewhat of a celebrity in the small world of ‘wild edibles’ and goes by the name Wildman Pete. When Martha shows up she finds herself with a half-dozen others who gather around Wildman Pete, a slack-muscled old hippy who speaks so many details so quickly she scrambles to keep up. Threads hang from his paisley shirt sleeves and he uses a walking stick—Pete’s wild days, if he ever had any, clearly behind him. Most annoying to Martha is the perky single woman in a floppy sunhat who keeps interrupting Wildman Pete, taking notes, and sidling up to Martha to make inappropriate remarks, as if they were best friends. Wildman Pete leads them along the riverbank.
“That there white flowering plant is the water hemlock,” he says, pointing with a Bowie knife, its handle made of something resembling bone or horn. “We’re not going to get one step nearer.” Ingesting any water hemlock, he tells them, results in a sure death—no antidote—with convulsions so violent they can break bones within forty-five minutes. There were even cases of people who whittled flutes by mistake from water hemlock, and died right after playing their first song.
The woman nudges Martha, and says, so close Martha can smell her cinnamon gum, “Comes in handy, you decide to get rid of your ex-husband after all, once civilization comes down, right? Who’s gonna know?” She laughs hard, to herself; Martha politely titters. For the rest of the class the woman interrupts and nags Wildman Pete to talk more about mushrooms and hallucinogens that can be used for shamanistic journeys and “inner work.”
The story makes a good one over lunch, although Martha is careful to tell Sally she went to a “gardening class,” not foraging, and avoid raising suspicion. They’re sitting outside on Park Avenue, thinly-sliced cucumbers floating atop their iced water. The hour-long self-defense class was basic and unremarkable. An officer reminded them not to use ATMs at night and, if ever apprehended, to scream and kick just hard enough to run away. His partner came around with a mat; they struck with their palms and screamed “No!” from their guts. At the end the cops handed out keychain whistles with flashlights and pens which advertised the police department.
“That woman was a lunatic,” Martha says, and sips some water. A chilled sauvignon blanc sweats before Sally. “But still, I want to take more of these classes.”
“How about salsa?” Sally sits forward, fingertips together. “Get those endorphins going? Maybe—maybe!—meet someone?”
“I really liked that hitting we did, you know?” Martha mimics the palm-thrust they learned mid-air. “And I never thought of myself as angry before? Did you feel that?”
“Somewhat,” Sally says. Salads arrive. “I felt more powerful than I expected.”
“Exactly.” Martha smiles, picks up her knife and fork.
“Are you seriously thinking of trying martial arts?”
“I need the exercise.” Across from them the waiter kneels and sets down a bowl of water before a panting, black-and-white Great Dane. “And, I’m thinking about getting a dog.”
“A dog—but you hate dogs! You’ve always been a cat person.”
The couple one table over falls silent. Martha raises her eyebrows and stifles a laugh. Sally’s hand flies to her mouth, and she flushes red up to her blonde roots. “I mean, what would you do about your cats?” Sally says, more softly this time.
“Oh, I don’t know. I’m just thinking how this year is all about embracing change, taking back my life. Not being a victim of circumstance.” She laces her fingers together; the phantom circle where her rings used to reside feels too naked, like a missing limb. The Great Dane rises, drinks sloppily from the bowl, drenching the sidewalk. Martha says, “I’d have to walk a dog, which would also get me in shape and out of the house—there you go, I might meet someone.”
“I’ve never heard you so obsessed about getting into shape.” Sally’s forehead wrinkles as she takes another bite of salad.
“Getting in shape is number one.” Martha’s tone is emphatic; she stops herself just in time. Remember the First Rule, she thinks, and changes the subject. When Sally leaves to use the restroom Martha digs out the plastic whistle, fixes it to her keychain.
At home, boxes are piled up inside the front door. Steven is off from work, holed up in his room but appears, squinting, to intercept her. “These are addressed to you but I think some of these are a mistake,” he says, picks one up and frowns as he reads aloud. “Solar Cookers International? What’s that?”
She grabs the box. “Nope, I ordered some things.”
“Some weird things. What’s a solar cooker?”
“Never mind, it’s just some camping stuff. Hurricane prep. Hey, come with me to Home Depot in a little bit, will you? I want to get a generator, but need your help to lift it.”
“Aren’t generators expensive? I thought you were being careful with money.”
“I am—and this is practical.” The younger cat, Mr. Mike, tiger-striped, weaves between her legs and meows; the geriatric tabby, Echo, climbs down from her basket, slowly as a sloth. They trot up and hover by the food bowls; she scolds Steven for neglecting to feed them. “Dogs are a deterrent,” the police officer said that morning. A quick scroll of the news reveals bank failures in Italy, power blackouts in Australia, riots in Cape Town, the water gone, dried up. Her pulse quickens. She searches “best guard dogs” and “dogs for survivalists.” Mr. Mike leaps up; his tail flicks her computer screen. German Shepherds, Rottweilers, Dobermans. Is getting a dog for no other reason than protection a good idea, and does she really want to take this step? How did you know if you’d gone too far, and were in danger of becoming like the woman she’d met that morning—chattering and unhinged? Would she even know? SaavySurvivalist.com says, “Women are attacked first, then old people, children, and weak-looking men, in that order.” A knot tightens in her middle. Maybe she’s been going about this all wrong, and she’s not as alone as she thinks. Surviving for yourself—wasn’t that rather pointless? Maybe she couldn’t throw lavish dinner parties anymore and go to yoga and bridge, but maybe this would toughen her up. Maybe she’ll be able to help others in hard times. And her son, what about him?
“What do you think about getting a dog?” she calls to Steven. He springs to his doorway, wide-legged, and hugs his skinny arms to his chest. When he was a kid he used to love petting zoos and the class gerbils, she recalls. They can discuss the dog on the way to Home Depot, she says.
Martha begins karate on Tuesday nights and kickboxing on Thursday nights. Every time she lands a punch or a kick and exhales, she feels the same release as she did in the self-defense class, only now with more adrenaline—she leaves coated in sweat, and craving more. At both places she signs up for ten-class packages, buys uniforms and equipment. Several times a week the mailman or UPS driver rings the doorbell; she shoves the boxes in the hall closet and garage. A walkie-talkie set, crossbow and archery kit arrive—why not take up those next?—and freeze-dried food ordered from a company in Utah whose website features wholesome-looking blonde moms. The same company sells a food dehydrator, but she doesn’t order that yet. She makes a separate list for the expensive and more complicated items: bug-out location, get-out-of-dodge vehicle, guns and body armor. When the credit card statements arrive, she trembles. To pay for the preps she will need another part-time job. She marches into the nearest REI the next day and describes her experience at the vintage store. “I haven’t spent as much time in the wilderness as I’d like,” she tells them. “But hopefully, I will be. With my son.”
The dog Martha and Steven pick out is a smaller German Shepherd, a female, hesitant and shrewd, but friendly enough, they agree. But first there is the problem of the cats. Martha decides to try Sally, whose circle is far wider; besides, she needs to tell her about her second job. Double rows of brake lights glow red as Martha creeps along in rush hour traffic. Sally picks up on the third ring, out-of-breath. “Know anyone who’s up for adopting cats?”
“Cats?” Sally says. “What are you talking about? I can’t—look, Jason and I are at my house. He’s just been robbed. Are you anywhere nearby?”
“Be right there.” Martha whips a u-turn and barrels toward Sally’s street.
Moments later, Martha hugs Sally, then Jason, the three of them gathered in Sally’s living room. Sally sails over to the liquor shelf, pours bourbon and hastily passes around some ice. Jason is ashen and can’t sit still; he sits, then paces. Sally remains seated but flicks her hair over her shoulder. Sally’s own cat, overweight and white as an Easter bunny, rolls on the couch. “What happened?” Martha asks. Sally and Jason had just met up at his bungalow, a few streets over from Sally’s, and made a quick trip to the grocery store for a few things.
“We come back, and the door is kicked in, big shoe print and everything,” Jason says. “The papers are messed up on the desk, bedroom drawers all open—nothing in there but boxer briefs, good luck with that.” They called the police, spoke to the neighbor, who claimed to have heard a crash just after their car left the driveway, but didn’t bother to come out and see what—thought he must have heard a board falling in the garage. The medicine and kitchen cabinets were gone through, left open, vitamin bottles askew.
“Whoever broke in was a drug addict, the cops think, probably someone homeless—God knows they’re around,” Sally says. She smooths her hair; the ice rattles. “I feel so violated. I mean, we hadn’t been gone ten minutes—what if we had been home?”
“What are you going to do now?” Martha asks. She shivers; the A/C kicks on.
“I don’t know—get a dog,” Sally says, and laughs. “Is that what you’re up to? Finding homes for your cats?”
Jason sways, fists on hips. “Now I see how people get guns,” he says, a catch in his throat.
“You’re not getting a gun,” Sally says quickly.
“Well, maybe I’ll get a dog.” He gestures toward Martha. “Nothing wrong with that. I like dogs. If I were a woman alone, I’d get one too.”
Martha presses her hands between her thighs. The cat comes up and rubs her leg.
Facing the liquor cabinet, Jason splashes more bourbon into his glass, mutters something about the income inequality getting out of control. Sally leans forward. “You know what else,” she says. “I heard from my sister today, out in San Francisco. You know that super wealthy family she works for, as an au pair? Well, not anymore—she says she just finished helping them pack up. They’re moving to New Zealand. I asked her if she thought they had a bunker down there. She says something like that, a big off-the-grid compound. A lot of the rich people are leaving, she says. Afraid of unrest.”
Martha arises, her legs watery and weak, thanks them for the drink, and to let her know if she can be of help. Only by the time she’s at the stop sign does she realize she forgot to mention her new hours at the camping store.
The next morning Martha calls the breeder to confirm that she’ll take the dog. Then she calls the vet and makes an appointment to euthanize Echo. Steven will be upset, but Echo is twenty and has been deaf and blind for years now. Might as well be time to say goodbye. As for Mr. Mike, she recalls reading on one of the prepper sites that the very poor in other countries eat cats, and that cat stew can be rather tasty—far tastier than dog. Her insides clench, but maybe they can try keeping Mr. Mike for now, if he lives in Steven’s room. Not a very fun existence for Mr. Mike, but they’ll all have to make sacrifices. Better to decide now who to be, she thinks, and mercy is easier when you have a full stomach.
A few weeks later, Martha is as toned and buff as the women she once envied who emerged from yoga. At REI she so casually inserts the Rule of Three into her pitches—“three hours without shelter, three days without water, three weeks without food”—that her sales jump to the front of the team; the manager bumps her up to full-time, and Martha gives her notice at Marvelous Mid-Century. Sometimes Sally joins her at kickboxing class and to walk Sasha, Martha’s new dog. One day Sally shows up with pepper spray for each of their keychains, in breast cancer awareness pink; Martha’s dangles alongside her safety class whistle. Jason is moving into Sally’s house and they’re installing an alarm system. In the heat the German Shepherd pants and strains and takes huge shits. Martha cringes when she picks up the mounds of excrement and drops them in the little bag, but the dog-walking is also keeping her in shape. Her days are full and she has never felt so healthy. She can feel the ground beneath her feet again, even if what lies ahead doesn’t resemble at all her former life.
By the height of summer, tropical storms are churning in the Atlantic, one angry white pinwheel after another. Sooner or later a depression will turn into a hurricane. MerryPreppers mentions having a “Merry Survival At-Home Weekend” where you hunker down and try out your preps, troubleshooting whatever may arise to avoid snags in an actual emergency. She has no plans for the 4th of July and Steven is going to the Keys with his father. The store has been slow; she gives away the rest of her shifts. On that Saturday she makes sure the propane tanks are full. She’s bought a few more things with her employee discount: a tent, sleeping bag and pillow, a camp shower. Just me and the raccoons in the backyard, she laughs to herself. Reading online she learns how to turn off the main breaker for the house electricity so she can hook up the generator, unused until now. Before Steven leaves she gets him to help her haul the generator outside, under the deck in case of rain; alone she manages to hook up the proper plugs and cords. In a huff the machine chugs to life: the fridge hums, the ceiling fans spin. Steven will be so proud, she thinks. Just in time, too—dark clouds rolling in and breeze kicking up. She hurries inside to reward herself, opens a bag of freeze-dried beef stroganoff, then brings a treat to the dog who lays beneath the couch. Sasha opens one eye as she approaches, yawns wide, and takes the treat.
Martha turns off the A/C to not strain the generator, and the house quickly grows warm. Somewhere in the neighborhood, a couple of firecrackers sound off early. “Survival scenarios often involve more boredom than the average person expects,” according to SavvyPreppers—or did she read that on PrepperJane? She lays down, sleepy, and to her surprise Mr. Mike trots out of the bedroom, onto the back of the couch, and curls up at her feet. She’ll never be hungry, or have to drink dirty water. She’ll never be without shelter.
But in three minutes, she’ll be without air. At the end of the weekend Steven will come home and find Martha’s body, her lips cherry red. By her feet lay the cat and dog, stiffened and silent. “Carbon monoxide poisoning,” the cop will say, pat Steven on the back as they wheel out his mother under a dark sheet. “Common mistake with generators—run them someplace like that deck, and you get a wind that blows a certain way, the fumes find their way into the vents and crawlspace pretty fast, and you’re dead.” Sally and Jason will sit on the porch, and weep. Carefully tucked behind the potted plant will be a brown package, and within the bouquet of mail an invitation to NRA membership.
For now, Martha is falling asleep. That beef stroganoff was salty and is making her feel constipated—queasy, too. She frowns and yawns. All these water purification tablets and the antibiotic travel kit—before the world goes to hell, maybe she’ll take Steven on a trip to Thailand. Learn to run your life, or your life runs you. She closes her eyes. Sapphire water, sugar sand, towering isles of limestone rock.