Jerry was just a college kid trying to catch one more weekend of fun before senior year when the ash hit. His college, his home town, his family—all wiped out in the blink of an eye. With the nation teetering on the edge of ruin, he joins the military to help with the search and rescue but finds that the powers that be want to use this natural disaster as cover for an unnatural war. The last war. Winner take all that’s left.
In the satellite photos, though, he sees evidence that the lands where he grew up might still have some green grass. With no idea whether anyone still lives there, Jerry dreams of someday returning to those pastures, even if it means living there all alone.
Meanwhile, Josh, Adaline, Claire and the rest of the denizens of the last valley have built a thriving community—and even have contact with another community across the mountains. But a disease is sweeping through Overstreet, one that could wipe them all out. Twenty years before, the cure would have been easy to affect, but now, their isolation may be their doom.
They can only pray for a miracle.
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The man on the other side of Jerry from Darren—a stout, middle-aged man in a white plantation hat, shorts too short for his build and a Hawaiian shirt unbuttoned so as to display his hairy chest and ample gut—suddenly said, “Bartender. That TV got any sound?”
The bartender looked like he was about to say something negative or sarcastic in reply, but his attention went to the TV, and then he was grabbing for the remote and fumbling with it as if it were hot before he got control of it. As he turned up the sound, everyone sitting at the bar turned their attention to see—not the usual sports anchors but one of the nightly anchors from the parent network that owned the sports channel. He was dressed in a suit and tie, but he looked uncomfortable and his skin tone was different (owing to not having the time to be made up) as he said, “To repeat, we have reports from people in Wyoming and Idaho that an enormous plume of ash and smoke has been seen spewing from the ground in Yellowstone National Park. According to these reports, the cloud was spotted by people more than a hundred miles outside the park and is estimated to be rising to a height of—“ He touched his ear in that way anchors do when getting important updates, then swallowed hard as he looked off-camera and asked, “How reliable is—“
The TV went to that picture channels use when having technical difficulties, then suddenly there appeared a harried-looking woman, standing at the podium of the White House. She took a deep breath, then said, “We apologize for breaking in on your expected programming, but we must insist that everyone in the western United States get inside the nearest building. Shut the doors and windows and, if you have breathing masks, please apply them.”
As the TV began to play a loop of what the woman had just said, several people were saying things like, “It’s even saying that on my phone!”
“And my watch!”
“It’s all that’s on the radio.”
Several swear words were heard as people began to ask questions.
“That first guy mentioned Wyoming. Haven’t they always said there was a giant volcano under Yellowstone?”
“They’ve been saying that for two hundred years,” someone argued in response to that last question.
Suddenly, the alarms were sounding, telling everyone to get off the beach. Lifeguards were using bullhorns to tell specific people to get out of the water, and shore patrol boats were appearing as if out of nowhere and making sure everyone could make it to the sand safely. The warning sirens of the town of Galveston could be heard in the distance.
Darren wasn’t too steady (or cognizant of the danger), so Jerry helped him get to their motel, a ratty little place near the beach which suddenly looked better than it had all week as the traffic jam of people exiting in cars began to pile up. Ineffectual honking was added to the general din of the warning sirens—now aided by police and fire sirens. People could be heard shouting, and screaming, as they tried to obey the order to get off the beach. Voices shouted at the car in front of them, as if the person driving that car were just sitting still to be obstinate and not backed up behind a row of stopped cars, all waiting for a break in the traffic. The repeated warning from the White House could be heard coming from a thousand phones and car radios.
In the motel room, Jerry turned on the TV, to see the same warning being repeated on every channel. He stumbled across one network on which a person at a news desk was saying, “We have an unconfirmed report that the famed Yellowstone volcano has erupt—“ before the feed went down, to be replaced by the government loop. Darren’s brain had almost caught up to the moment, then, and he asked Jerry, “What’s goin’ on, bro?”
It momentarily crossed Jerry’s mind to make some comment about the stupidity of Darren’s recent attempts to talk like a surfer—or like he imagined surfers talked, for none of the actual ones did—but he replied, “Not sure. Sounds like a volcano, though.”
“In Houston?” Darren asked, squinting at the TV as if doing so would improve his perception.
“In Yellowstone,” Jerry replied shortly, staring at the TV himself, trying to will it to give more details.
Darren was about to make an attempt at humor along the lines of hoping Yogi Bear was OK, when the President of the United States appeared, standing at the podium that the spokeswoman had been standing at for the looped message. He had that calm, measured look he always carried, but Jerry noticed he appeared to be just a little short of breath. Like he had hastily dressed and run to this room from another part of the White House. He eschewed his famous winning smile to look reserved, paternal and constipated as he said, “My fellow Americans. Exactly seventy-eight minutes ago, there was an eruption of gas and ash from what we have known for years as the Yellowstone Dome. Eighteen minutes after that,” he paused and looked down, appearing to his constituency as a man who was grasping for his sanity in the face of bad news. After a moment, he looked back at the camera and said, “Eighteen minutes after that, the largest eruption in the recorded history of mankind began. Many of you have felt the tremors and even those of us who didn’t will, the experts tell me, soon be seeing a cloud of ash and dust from the arctic circle to the Yucatan peninsula and, perhaps, beyond. I must ask you to stay off all land-lines and hold all other forms of communication to a minimum as we dedicate all the resources of this great nation to our first responders. Stay off the roads and highways. Listen to your local authorities.”
He took another deep breath, stared downward at the podium for a moment that seemed excruciatingly long but was probably only a couple seconds, then looked back up at the camera and said, “’Choose this day whom you will serve. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.’ If you are a praying person, or even if you have never prayed in your life, Marion and I ask you to join us in supplication before the God of the Universe.”
And then most of the stations went blank and the few that remained on the air began to loop the president’s announcement. Jerry was sitting there numbly as Darren commented, “Think we can get back to college before classes start?”
“What?” Jerry had an idea that any reply was going to be wasted, but he told Darren, “I think college is over, Darren. I think everything may be over.”
“No kidding? You mean we, like, graduated?”
Jerry thought of several sarcastic replies, but finally just said, “Yeah. Just like that.”
Darren swore, but it wasn’t clear what at or to what purpose. It might have even been a word of triumph, based on the look on his face.
Jerry tried to call his parents, but no lines were available even though his phone said he was getting plenty of signal. He tried and tried again, with no success. Even tried going outside, as if that might help.
What he saw outside was the continued chaos of people trying to leave the beach, of cars jammed to a halt on the roadways, and many people just standing and watching in numb fear as an ash cloud miles high came near. It was visible first as a dark line on the horizon, but after the President’s announcement, several people had been watching for it and more than one voice had called out, “There it is!”
Then, word had spread through the crowd and even those in cars—who had so recently been honking or shouting—got out and stood, looking to the northwest as the dark line grew closer and closer. At first, it just looked like a rapidly approaching storm, but then it became clear that it was darker than most storms, and far taller, reaching hundreds or even thousands of feet into the air as it approach like a wall. Swear words were heard, as well as prayers. Some people fell on their faces, crying out prayers of repentance while others screamed or just stood numbly. Jerry even saw one woman walk to the beach, taking off her clothes as she went, and then walk calmly into the water until it was over her head. He ran close to try and find her—even enlisted a lifeguard who was still nearby and had seen the woman as well—but they never found any sign of her.