And So It Ends
“We overstayed our welcome. We bullied, we pushed, we invaded… and when we were done, when the world had felt our presence in every corner, felt our hands on their backs, shoving our way into every aspect of their lives, faiths, even their very existence… we were hated. God, they hated us. In retrospect, I can summon no actual surprise for what happened next. Our time had come. For our hypocrisy, for our crimes, we each paid such a terribly high price. The world we had known, the nation that our parents were told to be proud of, a place of fast food and ‘freedom fries’, home of the consumer, center of capitalism, world leader, it all ceased to exist. It was a slow, painful end, an extended death rattle, as we slowly tore ourselves apart, and then allowed others to finish what remained.
What was left in the wreckage of the world that was? We were. And this is our story, my story, and the story of us all. We have survived. We have lived on… in a world where ghosts haunt us and memories whisper in our ears. Life continues, one day at a time, and by the skin of our teeth and the force of our will, we will continue. What else can we do?” - Jess’s Journal
On “Black Monday” - the long-faltering United States economy collapsed into complete chaos. In the past few years, state after state had found themselves out of money and out of options. The federal government stopped promising bailouts and instead preached “state independence” and “more autonomy.” Road projects and other public works halted, and it left hundreds of thousands of state and even federal employees holding worthless checks.
Abroad, things moved quickly as well. Quietly, without fanfare or publicity, American troops withdrew from the Middle East and Asian conflicts. In some places they left under cover of night, a stark gaping hole left in their absence. Iraq and Afghanistan dissolved into civil war within days of being abandoned, while their neighbors looked on and tried to decide how to fortify their borders and contain the violence while also profiting from the conflicts.
Where had it all begun? Some said it began with OPEC no longer honoring the decades-long agreement to set prices and sell their oil based on American currency. Others claimed the beginning of the end came with China demanding payment in yen, not United States currency, on the billions in debt the United States owed it. Still others pointed far back to the strategies put into place after World War II that transformed the United States into an economic and political world power and consumer nation.
However it began, it was now crashing down in ruin. The United States had overextended itself and the future of its citizens, financially and politically, in the hearts and minds of people throughout the world. From the not-so-benign foreign policy, to the endless wars waged in the Middle East, our country, once hailed as a world leader, became a mindless bully. We were the tyrant, the monster at the door. Where there had once been handfuls of money to seemingly any country that asked, now there was only debt and abandonment.
The militias that disappeared underground or forcibly disbanded in the mid-1990s came back with ferocious fervor. Perhaps they had never really left. But everyone from the Luddites to the Neo-Nazi to small bands of survivalists was forming, each seeking to put their own unique vision of how the world should work into action. And with those thousands of voices clamoring for different methods, different approaches—combined with the financial collapse from within, abandonment by the rest of the world and foreign banks screaming for payment — these things brought one of the most powerful nations in the world to its knees. It heaved a great sigh and quickly came apart at the seams. The federal system collapsed first, then the states, breaking into chunks of territories, areas full of in-fighting and instability. Among the military factions, abandoned by their government, rose a dangerous and powerful network of former soldiers in the West. They called themselves the Western Front.
Consisting of units from Fort Pendleton and Fort Irwin and picking up odd assortments of the militaristic militias along the way, the Western Front tore its way through Nevada and Colorado. Their numbers ebbed and flowed, but as more and more of the basic infrastructure of the country broke down, their power in numbers and weaponry increased. They looked to the east and rumors spread that they would soon be on the move.
Jess was twelve years old on Black Monday, and Christopher was fifteen. But they both remembered that day, just as their parents before them remembered the fall of the Twin Towers or the day they shot President Reagan. Mom lost her job two months before after the latest layoffs, and Dad headed home after sitting around for half the day. No business, no customers, no one out on the streets. As if a death knell sounded, those still employed, those who still had jobs and places to go to, suddenly found themselves at home, wondering what would happen next. That evening they watched the television in dull shock as the President held a press conference to announce that all debts, foreign and private, were to be held void. The British, heavily invested in American banks, were already threatening embargoes. The Chinese had been rioting for weeks over the trade/import issues, and their government was making threats that continued to grow in clarity and intensity.
The world fell apart. Jess’s parents said little, and in the months and years that followed, they simply tightened their belts, planted gardens, began raising chickens for eggs and meat, and got by on less. As the infrastructure continued to collapse, utilities and out of area supplies faltered. First there were the brownouts, just a lull in the electrical flow that rarely even caused the computers to reboot. Later there were blackouts, first for a few minutes and finally hours and even days at a time. The price of natural gas spiked so high that Jess’s father, Michael, installed a wood-burning stove in the living room against the west wall. It was a prized antique, but it was also an honest-to-goodness working stove and Jess’s mother Tess experimented with it regularly, churning out loaves of bread that slowly transformed from inedible black carbon, to uneven half black half browned to beautiful, perfect loaves over a course of a few months. “The pioneers did it,” she said proudly, “and I can too!”
But the real Black Monday, the one that came on November 4th, was the one that tore apart Jess’ world. And when it was over, when the Western Front troops tore through the small town of Belton, with barely a hiccup of resistance from its terrified residents, destroying any who even dared fight back, Jess learned what actual loss felt like.
In the camps, miles to the South, weeks of marching later, and hours of standing in line at gunpoint, she found herself thrust into a tent. There was a long folding table, three men seated behind it, with several checklists on the battered folding table in front of them.
“Name?” one of them asked, barely looking up.
“Jessica Aaronson.” She replied. The second man ran his finger down the lists. “Age?” he asked, bored.
“Parents?” he asked.
“Daniel and Julie Aaronson.” He scanned further, finding nothing. “Any other relatives?”
“My brother, Christopher Aaronson.” She tried to stay calm. There were so many people here, so many places they might be. She had been just a few miles away at the store, buying flour and haggling with the store owner, Michael Banks, over the price of apples when the troops came barreling in. Hearing the shots and the tank, Banks pulled a weapon from a hidden place behind the counter. The invaders shot him the second they saw the rifle in his hands. His blood still stained her shirt. For three days she searched desperately for her family as armed men kept the bedraggled, exhausted groups of prisoners under close watch.
The second man found nothing in his lists. He shook his head at the third, who was eyeing Jess in a way that made her skin crawl.
She shivered. It had rained earlier while she stood in line, and she was wet and cold, filthy, and scared. Far too terrified to even care that she had eaten little more than a handful of food in the past few days. Where were Mom and Dad? And Chris? Where the hell was everyone? Belton was not a big town, but not that small either. Jess saw only one neighbor she recognized, Mrs. Dillon, from down the street.
The third man smiled widely at her discomfort. It was an evil smile, full of malice, and Jess shivered in her damp shirt. “Well, she’s available for assignment then.” He wrote her name down on his list, and checked the Troop Entertainment box and turned to the guard, “Take her to Tent Five.” As the trooper took her by the arm and led her away, she could hear him call to her, “I’ll be by later to see how you’ve settled in.” He laughed then, and it wasn’t a pleasant sound. She heard him snap out “Next!” for the man next in line to step forward.
Her feet slipped in the mud and the trooper kept a firm grip on her arm, practically dragging her along. Mrs. Dillon was there in line. “Did you find your parents, dear?”
Jess was in near tears. “No, Mrs. Dillon. They’re taking me to Tent 5; please see if you can find Chris or my Mom or Dad, please!” She broke into tears then, partially from the painful grip the soldier had on her arm, partly from absolute terror. What the hell was Tent 5?
Behind her, Mrs. Dillon stood stock still, her usually impeccably groomed gray hair in disarray. Strands of gray stuck out from her bun wildly, waving in the late fall wind. A young boy, clad in an oversized, stained blue and red Western Front uniform, stood nearby. He smirked as he watched the girl being dragged away. The old woman turned to him and took a hold of his sleeve. He was barely fifteen, if even that. She shook his arm and demanded, “Where are they taking her?”
“Lemme go, lady!” he wiggled, and the guard stationed nearby leveled his rifle and yelled at her to get back in line.
“Where are they taking her?” she persisted. “What’s Tent 5?”
“That’s the whores’ tent, lady. She’s gonna be ‘tainment for the men.”
Her grip loosened and her eyes widened in horror. He grinned at her maliciously, showing a mouth full of tobacco-stained and twisted teeth.
His tongue darted out to lick his chapped lips. “She gonna ‘git it good too.” He pulled free of her hand and gave the shocked old woman a hard shove. “Now ‘git back in line.”
Then the boy spit a long brown stain in the dirt, marking the old woman’s shoe with tobacco juice as he walked away. She just stood there, trembling, tears of pity trickling down her lined face. A small, thin, ugly girl behind her in line leaned close and whispered,
“Welcome to hell.”
Mrs. Dillon didn’t have long to wait. A mere ten minutes later and it was her turn before the three seated men.
Her lip quivered, “I’m sixty-eight years old.”
“Only my husband, Murray, and he died last year.”
The second man didn’t even bother to look up, but the third man did. And with a cold smile, he simply scribbled her name, checked the Range Disposal box and nodded to the guard. “Take her to the range.”
The old woman went quietly. Most of them did. If anyone was paying attention, which they weren’t, they would have heard the single shot ring out a few minutes later. She was the tenth one that morning.
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