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.
Make you read how this all started in “Ashes to Ashes” and “Crazy on the Mountain“!
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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.
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Be sure and read how this story started in “Ashes to Ashes” and concludes in “Book of Tales“!
I happened to ask, “Deanna, how long have you lived in Vail?”
“What? Oh, you might say I’ve lived there all my life.” Adaline and I looked at each other in surprise, for this was not said with the hick voice Deanna had mostly been using of late. It also made us wonder about our earlier thought that she was from Denver. She continued, in a somewhat conspiratorial tone, “My great-grandfather was the first of the family to come to Vail. The story that he told his family was that he had been a banker in Birmingham, Alabama,” the names of the city and state were said with a deep, southern accent. “But the bank had gone bust—through no fault of his own, of course, so he had headed west to seek his fortune. He said he worked several jobs in towns both big and small before landing in Vail, broke and starving, worried about his wife and kids back home for it had been some time since he had been able to send them money.
“But it was ski season and he took a job in a kitchen at one of the hotels. He worked hard and sent money back to his family and, by the end of the ski season, had worked his way up to waiter. Over the summer months, he proved himself invaluable and was made assistant manager of the restaurant, and then manager. At that point, he sent for his wife and kids and was ever so happy to see them. He got his kids—who were teenagers by then—jobs in Vail and they saved their money and, would you believe it, one day they bought the restaurant! Using all of his banking and monetary skills, he was eventually able to buy the building the restaurant was in, and his ‘empire’ was begun!”
Deanna chuckled, then said, still in the refined voice of someone who had grown up on the tonier side of life, “And thus began the Coventry empire of Vail. Pembleton is my married name, of course. I grew up attending the best schools, a member of all Vail’s best clubs, and groomed for a career in hoteliery. Yes, I know that’s not really a word, but my father always said it should be. But, I went off to college and fell in love and got married and, well, the last thing I wanted to do was to come back to Vail for anything other than a visit. Best laid plans of mice and men, right? My father had a stroke when I was just about to turn thirty, so my husband and I came back to watch over the business while he recovered. What was supposed to just be a few weeks in Vail became years, with my own children going to those same schools I did, joining the same clubs, being the same spoiled, rich brat I was. Oh how I wish we had never left Denver. My husband, Paul Pembleton, he rose to great heights in Vail, sat on all the important boards and had chairmanships in all the clubs, but I think he always resented the thought that he had only gotten there because of my family connections. It wasn’t true, of course, but it’s how men think sometimes. You know, I think he actually appreciated the ash cloud, for it allowed us all to go back to square one, with no one being anything more or less than what they could contribute.”
In a sly voice, she continued, “But speaking of square one. When my own grandmother was nearing the end of her life, I went and sat with her for many an hour, listening to her stories of growing up in Alabama, of earlier days in Vail than I had ever known. And one night, when she was strangely lucid,” a phrase that got both mine and Adaline’s attention, for we had both been thinking it in relation to Deanna, “She told me a story. According to her, my great-grandfather hadn’t been an innocent bystander in the failure of that bank, but the main instigator. His father was the actual president of the bank, you see, and my great-grandfather had been manipulating loans in some way that allowed him to pocket a sizable sum on the side. Undeclared, you might say.
“Then, one day, maybe he thought his father was about to get on to him, he withdrew an enormous sum of cash from his personal account, walked out of the bank, and no one knew where he went. Didn’t go home or anything. When my great-grandmother called her father-in-law that evening, he said they should call the police, thinking something nefarious had happened to the up-and-coming young banker. Perhaps a ransom call would come in any moment. It was then, so the story goes, that the bank president first realized what his son had been doing. He called his daughter-in-law and convinced her not to file a missing person’s report, for fear of what the publicity would do to the bank. He did agree, however, to engage the services of a private detective.”
Deanna was still speaking in a normal voice, though it became a little dreamy as she said, “I wondered if it were a private eye like in the movies: snap-brim hat, long trench coat, steel-jawed chin. Anyway, the private eye had little trouble following my great-grandfather—though ‘great’ is probably the wrong word for him,” she said with an ironic chortle. “It seems my progenitor had left a bread-crumb trail of prostitutes visited and affairs started that led all the way to Vail, where he was working as a lift attendant at the ski area while, um, serving a rich lady at night while her husband attended to his … let’s say: board functions.
“When the bank president learned of this, he brought his daughter-in-law and the kids out to Vail for a ski trip, hoping to engender one of those movie moments where the miscreant is surprised by his one true love and repents of his wicked ways. According to my grandmother, it was almost like that. Her father was happy to see his children, but not so happy to see his wife. Still, he stopped the fooling around, for a while, and took his family in. His father got him a respectable job as the manager of one of the local restaurants and my great-grandfather gave all appearances of becoming a respectable citizen again. What he was actually doing, though, was continuing his association with the rich lady. He got money out of her somehow and bought the restaurant. Set his wife up as the general manager, dumped the rich lady for a younger mistress, and made his children managers of other properties he had acquired. By the time I came along, great-grandfather was dead and his true story had been buried longer than he had.” She laughed heartily before adding, “There’s even a picture of him in the museum, all dressed up and looking distinguished, with a little plaque about how he was one of Vail’s leading citizens and top philanthropists. He even gave enough money to one of the local churches that they named the recreation building after him. Can’t you just see some youth minister telling the kids who came out to play volleyball, ‘And this building was named after a notorious sinner, who would have slept with any of your mothers who let him, in Jesus’ name, Amen!’” She cackled with laughter and then slipped back into one of her songs. Adaline and I looked at each other strangely, but continued on without a word. We did discuss later how much of the story we thought was true, but had no way to come to a conclusion. And we still thought Deanna was unhinged at best.
We made it to Vail in less than a week, which really encouraged me—and made Adaline wonder why I had thought it would take three weeks. The thing was, I hadn’t been counting on the Interstate being in such good shape, which it was. There were only a couple places where the ash had slid across it, and neither of them deep. And while Black Gore Creek ran strong in some places, it didn’t cross the highway at any point. As we pulled up in sight of Vail, I was smiling and telling Adaline how surprised everyone would be if we pulled back into town before they even came to look for our signal.
“Where are your people?” I asked Deanna, once we had her attention for she had been in the middle of a rousing rendition of either “Amazing Grace” or “I Fought the Law” (it was hard to tell).
She crawled up to crouch behind the front seat and, pointing, said, “Up yonder. You cain’t see it from here, but it’s the other side of that big white building by the ski slopes. I heared you talking about how the wind blew that gash in the ash—gash in the ash,” she repeated with a laugh, “And we had something just like that. People to the left and right was all dead, but our little gash was just fine. All things considered, I mean.”
“Think we can make it before nightfall,” I asked, for we were still a good five miles out, “Or should we make camp and get there in the morning?”
She looked up at the bright spot of the sun that almost shown through the ash and said, “Let’s see if we can push through. If we can’t, at least we can stay in one of the buildings on the edge of town. We might make’er this evenin’, though. Them’s good horses you got there.” This was a surprising statement, for she had frequently complained when we stopped to water the horses or, worse, gave them a lengthy breather and roll when we came upon that rare meadow of thick grass—or any grass. I couldn’t blame her for being anxious to get to her people, but I did get tired of her complaining—especially as we had been making such good time.
As we pulled closer to the town of Vail, some thunderheads started building to the west. “I hate to say it, Deanna, but we may need to pull up and find shelter.”
I had expected an objection, but she looked at the sky and said, “Them’s buildin’ up to be gully-washers, all right.” She pointed off to the right and said, “They’s an old mechanic’s shop up yonder. You’d be able to pull the horses into the dry.”
With impeccable timing we got the old garage doors open and the horses inside the bay just before a wall of summer rain came through. I enjoyed seeing it, though, for it made me think of the rains we used to have when I was growing up. They would come up on us all of a sudden, pelt you with raindrops the size of golf balls, then pass through as quickly as they had arrived. I could see some sunlight to the west, creating a golden line on the mountains in that direction, which made me think this would be one of those storms. It was, but by the time it had passed through it was too late to go anywhere so we set up camp in the old automotive shop. I was afraid Deanna would be upset by us stopping that close to her goal, but she just curled up on a couch in the manager’s office and went to sleep.