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Fallout 1979

By Michael Andre-Driussi

 

Nelly stood facing an empty parking lot, a homemade radiation meter in her hand.

“Call it out,” said Dick behind her. He sat behind the wheel of the idling station wagon, a ‘72 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser.

It was Day 14, two weeks since President Carter told the nation to shelter in place. By the cloudy morning light Nelly read the foil leaves hanging inside the soup can.

“Minus seven and four,” she said, her voice muffled by the bandana. She looked up, pushed her glasses into position, and gazed toward the glass and brick front of the Fareway supermarket so many meters away. “We should park closer—like, right at the door.”

“Nope,” said Dick.

“Why not?” she asked, looking at him. A big reddish-blond jock, he was 29, six years older than Nelly, and married with kids.

“Security reasons,” he said, and Wayne beside him nodded. Lorraine in the back seat, the youngest at 21, rolled her eyes.

“So instead we take more radiation, walking across half the parking lot.” She stretched her shoulders, constrained by a borrowed trenchcoat that was too small.

“Yep,” he said, just like a gym teacher talking to a balky kid.

“That’s—”

“Time,” said Wayne, as he scratched at his long dark sideburn.

“Minus eight and five,” said Nelly.

Wayne looked at the chart and said, “One point six per hour.”

“You’re kidding,” said Dick, as Wayne wrote it down in the notebook beneath the other figures. “Well, damn, we got a local hot spot. We’ll give it three more minutes.”

Nelly looked around, this being her first visit to Fort Dodge, Iowa. Even though it was now located inside the fallout plume stretching from South Dakota across northern Iowa, the place didn’t look all that different from Ogden, a small town 80 kilometers away to the south. In both places the sky was cloudy, and the temperature felt more like fall even though it was summer.

The difference was the total lack of people, the eerie silence of an empty city. On the pavement she saw many little clumps that were dead birds.

“Time.”

“Minus eight and six.”

“Yeah, not so hot, like point six,” said Dick. “So it’s probably point six, or average the two readings for one rad.”

“Better safe than sorry,” said Nelly.

“Okay, so call it ‘one.’ We’re cleared for six hours of work here, minus the driving time, but I doubt we’ll be here an hour.”

Dick turned off the engine. Nelly put the meter in the back seat as the others got out and stretched.

“That’s five times what it was at the spot checks,” said Nelly.

“We’ll find out later, when more numbers come in,” said Wayne.

Dick took up the rifle, put on his John Deere cap, and sat on the hood.

“Hey, bring me some Little Debbies on the first trip out, okay?”

“Sure.”

The three scavengers started across the parking lot. Now Nelly saw the dead birds as being subtle signals that this was an area with a lethal cumulative dose in two weeks. Such a dose was more than enough to kill a person, but staying in a house would cut that dose in half. Nelly tried to recall the tables she had studied. Grudgingly she admitted to herself that Dick was right to be security conscious—there could be stranded survivors who would take the car to escape.

“Remember,” she said, “powdered milk for the kids. And Tang, we all need the Vitamin C.”

“Space Food Sticks,” said Lorraine. Her hair was like a shaggy white poodle, a perm growing out. She adjusted her bandana and laughed, saying, “God, we look like bank robbers.”

“Get your carts from inside,” said Wayne. “They won’t be contaminated.”

The interior of the supermarket was dark, and Nelly coughed at the heavy odor of rotting fruit and vegetables. They switched on their flashlights.

“First up is a trip to the powder room,” said Lorraine.

“Me, too,” said Nelly, breathing through her mouth. “For ‘security reasons.’”

“Women,” muttered Wayne, getting a shopping cart.

“Go ahead and start without us,” said Nelly. “Pick up three nine-kilo bags of rice, and some Little Debs.”

“Yeah, well, check the phone. It would be good if we could call in from here.”

As the women moved toward the back of the store they came across evidence of minor looting.

“Whoever did it must’ve headed to Wisconsin,” said Nelly. Her stomach growled as she caught the smoky scent of fire-roasted meat.

“Yeah,” said Lorraine. “I can’t imagine stopping at the market, myself, can you? Once I left the house, I’d just drive straight out.”

“Hello?” came an old man’s voice from the darkness ahead.

The women froze. Nelly found the revolver in her hand but didn’t remember drawing it.

“Hello!” she said. “Who’s there?”

“It’s Howard,” said the voice, beyond the open doorway to the backroom. “I’m Howard. Who are you?”

“I’m Nelly, and this is Lorraine, and here comes Wayne. We’re from Ogden, down by Boone. Are you alone?”

“Well, just me and Dave, but he’s dead. The radiation got him.”

“How long you been here, Howard? This is Wayne.”

“Pleased to meet you. Uh, what day is it?”

“It’s Day Fourteen,” said Nelly, “August twenty-fourth.”

“Oh, then I’ve been here close on two weeks. Listen, if I help you load up your car, can you take me with you? I mean, you’re here to loot the place, right?”

“We’re not looters,” said Wayne. “We’re from Boone County, and Fareway’s headquarters is in Boone.”

“Oh, I see, I see. So I’ve been guarding it for you, even though it looks like I’ve been squatting. Anyway, if I help, can you give me a lift?”

“Yeah, we can,” said Wayne. “But that’ll be a hundred kilos of food we can’t take ‘cause of you.”

“I’ll make it worth your while.”

“Of course we’ll take you,” said Nelly. “Do you have experience in medicine, or police work?”

“Nope. I’m a retired accountant.”

“Were you ever in the military?”

“No, I’m four F with flat feet.”

“Do you have any family in Boone?” asked Lorraine.

“Nope.”

“Any family at all?”

“Just my wife, but she died some years back.”

Wayne shook his head and whispered, “It’s coming out of your share.”

“It’s all right,” said Nelly to the hidden Howard, “I’ll sponsor you, personally.”

 

~

 

Nelly pushed her loaded cart out the door and shouted, “Hey, we found a survivor!”

“You’re kidding!”

Howard came out, pushing a cart, and said, “Hello, I’m Howard.”

“Wow,” said Dick. “Wow! How’re you doing, Howard?”

“Not too bad. Things are looking up.”

“You got any high value skills?”

“No,” said Wayne, next in line. “Just another loser like us.”

Once they reached the station wagon, Howard said, “As a matter of fact, I’ve got some information that you might want.”

“Yeah?”

“Yes. How much weight can this car carry?”

“With four passengers, around 400 kilos,” said Dick. “With five people, I dunno . . . how much do you weigh?”

“So each trip you take around 400 kilos? Which is what, 800 pounds?”

“Almost 900.”

“There’s a dead truck driver back in there, name of Dave,” said Howard. “He was alive when I got here, but he had radiation sickness and died after a week.

“Anyway, he was driving on Interstate 24 when he saw the mushroom cloud at Des Moines. In the confusion he drove his truck into a ditch, where he passed out or something, maybe a concussion. When he woke up, the truck wouldn’t start, so he got out and walked to the next stop on his list. He ended up here.”

“So what?” said Wayne.

“So there’s a truckload of food on Interstate 24, west of here, right?” said Nelly. “Maybe the truck can run, too.”

Howard nodded. “Dave kept saying it was the battery. Now, with your car here, we could go get a fresh new truck battery at Montgomery Wards just a couple miles up the street.”

“I say we do it,” said Nelly.

“Well, who’s gonna drive it?” said Dick. “You?”

“Damn straight.”

“I don’t like it,” said Wayne. “We’ve got a guaranteed thing right here, a whole bunch of car-loads. Once we get back to Ogden, the next team takes the car, and we’re done for a couple days. Why should we go off on a wild goose chase?”

“How much do you think a twenty-six foot box truck can haul?” asked Howard.

“You tell me,” said Wayne.

“Somewhere around three thousand kilos, I’m guessing. Which means that in one trip today you can deliver many times what you could haul in this one car. But think about it—this truck got its cargo from some sort of food distribution center, right? You find that place later in the week, and then the box truck will really come in handy.”

“My God,” said Nelly, her mouth watering. “We have to go for it. I say we get the battery and drive along Interstate 24 for an hour or two, using up our exposure time, and if we can’t find the truck, we head home with what we got here.”

There was a pause.

“Yeah, all right,” said Dick. “But we’ve got mileage limits on one tank of gas, so forty kilometers west, that’s it.”

“Great,” said Nelly, flashing a smile.

     

~

     

The trip to Montgomery Wards was quick and easy with Howard giving directions. They picked up two truck batteries of differing sizes, just to make sure.

They found the box truck 32 kilometers away, in a shallow depression between the highway and a cornfield. The bad news was that the area had collected so much rain runoff that the truck sat in the middle of a small pond.

Nelly stood with her borrowed rain boots in the water, stunned at how rapidly the foil leaves flexed inside the can. Her mind racing, she called out numbers that made it clear that the water surrounding the truck was another localized hot spot, much more radioactive than the first one.

“We could draw straws,” said Dick.

“Absolutely not,” said Nelly. “This is my deal. Pace off five meters from the edge, and stay behind that line. Behind the car. That’ll cut your exposure in half.”

As they moved to comply, she shoved the soup can into her coat pocket and walked further into the water.

“Whoa, wait a minute!” said Lorraine.

“First thing is to see if there’s anything inside!” Nelly called over her shoulder, heading to the back of the truck. When she lifted up the door she gave a whoop of joy that was echoed by the others.

“Now check for the keys!” cried Howard.

Nelly hurried around the corner. She stumbled, making everyone gasp, but she recovered without falling into the radioactive soup.

“That’s two minutes,” said Dick as she reached the door.

Nelly climbed up and felt a trickle of sweat skate down her side. She cried out in triumph at finding the keys in the ignition. She turned the key, but nothing happened. The knob for the headlights was pulled, so she pushed it in. She turned the radio knob until it clicked off.

She tried to keep calm and focused on each task ahead, but every simple thing became more complicated. In growing irritation she searched for the way to open the hood—having succeeded at that, she was propping it up when Wayne called out “Five minutes.”

That was too short for what she had gone through, but it was also distressingly long to be exposed to radiation. Her heart raced and she felt a rush of sweat. She looked over to the team to complain but shouted instead at the sight of smoke rising from a farmhouse off to the northwest.

Nelly ran out of the puddle as Dick climbed onto the roof of the station wagon for a better view. The smoke had already grown to a greasy yellow mass, the sign of a house fire.

“Wish we had some binoculars,” he said.

“Shouldn’t we go help them?” asked Lorraine.

“Hell no,” said Wayne.

“I just hope they don’t come this way,” said Dick. “We’ve got to hurry.”

“Yeah,” said Nelly, “so give me the wrench, or whatever.”

All they had was a pair of pliers.

Nelly said, “Dick, you keep a watch on that fire, okay?”

“Yeah.”

“And Wayne, keep calling my time.”

“Sure.”

Nelly went back out to the truck and wrestled with the nuts at the battery’s post clamps, then fought against the securing bolts. Once it was free, she eagerly started to lift the battery and was surprised at how heavy it was. As she staggered with it across the puddle, Wayne called out “Ten minutes.”

Back at the car, Nelly set the dead battery down and reached for the fresh one, but Howard put his hands on it. “Let me help you. I can carry it over.”

“No,” she said. “You’ve had more radiation than any of us. You’ll get sick if you get much more.”

A number of gunshots rang out from the burning farmhouse. Nelly heaved up the fresh battery and waddled back to the truck. She dropped it into the rack, tightened the tie down finger tight, and started working on attaching the clamps to the posts. Sweat dripped into her eyes, and she couldn’t wipe them because her glasses were in the way. The glasses were fogging up and she felt like crying because she was running out of time.

There was a bang and a flash and her arm hurt like hell. She thought she had been shot. The pliers rattled through the engine compartment to splash into the soup.

“You okay?” shouted Lorraine.

“Yeah,” said Nelly, figuring it out. “I just touched the pliers to metal and it sparked.”

There was no time. She slipped a small plastic bag over her hand and fished the pliers out of the water. Her arm trembled, but she made herself continue the job.

She slammed the hood and climbed into the cab. Wayne called out, “Twenty minutes!”

Nelly flashed them a crossed fingers from the driver’s seat.

She turned the key. The engine turned over but it wouldn’t start.

“Come on, damn it!” she cried, trying again.

She tried a third time, then pounded on the steering wheel in frustration.

“Hey, can you smell gas?” called Wayne.

Nelly sniffed and, finding the aroma of gasoline, said, “Yeah?”

“Then it’s flooded,” said Wayne.

“Come on back here,” said Howard. “You’ve got to give it time to dry out.”

She went over to the car. Lorraine handed her rags and she wiped off her boots. She sat on the hood, rocking with impatience. They heard motors starting up over at the farm, and to Nelly that sound seemed to mock her efforts.

“How far away is that house?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” said Dick, “a kilometer?”

Nelly felt sick.

Time dragged on. Finally Dick said, “Okay, Nelly, give it another try.”

She walked over, climbed into the cab, and sat there for a moment.

She turned the key. The engine turned over but didn’t start.

“Please . . . please,” she murmured, her voice cracking.

She tried again. The engine sputtered to life.

Nelly drove the truck out of the puddle, then stopped it and let it idle as she hurried back to the car for decontamination rags.

“All right!” said Dick. “Now let’s get the hell out of here!”

“Ten-four good buddy,” she said. “Lead the way. Come on, Howard, you’re riding with me.”

Once they were inside the truck, Nelly said, “Far out! We did it! Now we can talk turkey.”

“You don’t trust the others?”

“I do,” she said, watching the car pull ahead of them, “but I’ve got to fill you in, and it’s easier in private.” Nelly had a time grinding the gears, and then they set off with a lurch.

“Sure, I understand that. So are you from Missouri? I noticed the car’s license plate.”

“That’s not my car,” she told him. “I’m from Arizona, originally. Went to college in Illinois, wound up in Des Moines. The car belongs to Jane. On Day 4 she piled the kids into the car and took off north, drove out of that plume. Now she’s part of our shelter group in Ogden, and she let us use her wagon for the job in exchange for a cut.

“I was delivering legal papers when the missiles came on Day Zero. I had a job with this law firm, and even though delivering papers wasn’t in my job description, they said I’d be back in Des Moines in time for lunch.

“And Dick! He was coming back from camping with his little family. Saw the mushroom cloud at Sioux City in his rearview mirror—came that close to being in the middle of it.

“But here I am, running like a motor mouth,” said Nelly. “Tell me about yourself. Why’d you go to the market?”

“’Cause I ran out of food.”

“Makes sense. Did you ever get sick? You know…”

“Yeah, I know,” said Howard. “I saw it all with Dave. Believe me, I know. The answer is no, I didn’t get sick.”

“Huh. So, like, you decontaminated, and all that?”

“Sure. I wore trash bags over my shoes, and fixed another one like a poncho.”

“How did you know to do that?”

“Just civil defense stuff from the ‘50s.”

“Huh,” said Nelly.

“But I’ve never seen anything like your meter. Can I look at it?”

“Yeah, sure. Here.”

It was a soup can with a clear plastic cover that had a number line with zero in the center. Inside, two threads in parallel crossed the middle of the can, each supporting a separate leaf of bent foil. After looking it over, he asked, “What’s that in the bottom?”

“Bits of drywall.”

“How does it work?”

“I don’t know, it just does,” said Nelly. “After you set it up, you read the leaves. See the foil hanging from the threads? See the number line? That’s in millimeters. So you read off the position of the leaves at the start, you know, to the left and the right of the center, and you time it for a while, then you read the positions again. If there’s radiation, it will make the foil leaves open up.”

“The leaves look all opened up now,” said Howard. “Bigger than the number line.”

“Well sure,” said Nelly. “It keeps reading the whole time. The point is what the reading was during the measuring time. We’ll have to reset that one.”

Howard studied it another moment, then set it down between them.

Trying to sound nonchalant, Nelly said, “So, what was it like with Dave?”

“Well, he had been sick before I got there, but he thought he was better. You know, weak, but better. Then, it must’ve been a week later, he got it again. Puking, the runs, and the rest.”

“Must’ve been scary.”

“I gotta admit, I thought it meant that the store was radioactive.” He looked out the window at the poisoned cornfields rolling by. “That I would be next.”

“And now we know—he walked all those kilometers, and the first fallout landed straight on him. Poor guy.”

“His wife and kids were at Des Moines.”

“Ugh,” said Nelly. “He’d seen the worst. But with his help, we’re still alive.”

“We should give him a proper burial.”

“You’re right, a hero’s burial in Ogden. And you, another hero, you’re in our shelter group now.”

“I’m glad to be there. Or ‘here.’”

“It’s called ‘Griswold’s hundred,’ because everyone’s been put into groups of a hundred, with forty locals and sixty ‘visitors.’ Our group’s in twelve houses at the 700 block of West Cherry. Mr. Griswold’s our boss, and Boone is our county seat, thirteen kilometers away.”

“Wow, sounds very organized,” said Howard.

“Yeah, it’s been a rough couple of weeks. The town’s population doubled with all the refugees, and then we had to turn the new ones away. That’s why Wayne was being that way about taking you in.”

“Huh. Okay.” Howard absently picked up a small book from the dashboard.

“So you’ve got to make yourself useful, all right? This truckload and the food distribution place is a great start, but you can’t just rest on that.”

“Hey,” said Howard. “This is his log book—here are the addresses!”

“You keep it. That’s all you’ve got to bargain with.”

“Thanks, Nelly.”

“I want to get that food, too. I mean, here we are, ‘visitors,’ busting our butts out in the plume to prove ourselves, our worth, I guess. Well, that’s one reason—Lorraine’s with us because she likes Wayne. We’re getting hazard pay, but money’s kind of abstract these days, and we all know that food is worth more than gold right now.”

“So what’s your reason?”

“Okay—well . . . look,” said Nelly. “Each shelter group has a mix of dependents and providers. So, like, we’ve got Jane and other mothers, and their kids—they’re dependents. Plenty of locals are dependents. So there’s that fact.

“Now, Lorraine wouldn’t mind being a dependent, but I couldn’t stand it. I don’t want to help out with the kids while ‘the men’ go out and bring home the bacon. I don’t like kids and I certainly don’t want to have any—I’m a firm believer in the E.R.A., and I don’t like the sort of ‘caveman’ mentality that’s been growing stronger since the nukes.”

“And now you’re bringing home the big bacon,” he said.

“Got that right! ‘We got a great big convoy, ain’t she a beautiful sight.’”

The irradiated landscape looked brighter to her then, lit by rays of optimism. She had ventured into the dead wasteland and won a treasure.

She turned to him and said, “When we get to Pilot Mound we’ll be out of the plume.”

Some time later they heard Wayne on the CB radio calling the Pilot Mound check point. After a few calls, the checkpoint responded, and then Wayne explained they were bringing in a new truck and a survivor.

It was around eleven o’clock when they arrived at their shelter group. They went through decontamination by showering and putting on fresh clothing, then they drove their cargo downtown to Clark’s Food Mart on West Walnut. It was during the unloading that Nelly vomited.

Dick hurried her over to the fire department, two blocks away. Once a paramedic was assigned to her, Nelly told Dick to go back and make sure they were not being cheated at Clark’s.

“It’s probably just the flu,” said Nelly to the paramedic. “Or maybe nerves.”

“Maybe,” he said, readying a pen and clipboard.

He asked her questions about her trip. It was all routine until he asked her for the reading on the puddle and she said, “Six.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Did you drive into South Dakota?”

“No, of course not.”

“Because that’s what they say is the average around the craters.”

“I know.”

He looked back to his clipboard and asked, “How long did you stay?”

“Half hour.”

“Then you drove back?”

“Yes.”

“Another hour.”

“No, more like two.”

“Okay,” he said, writing a bit. “Well, it looks like you had about four rads. Shouldn’t be a problem—”

“Like I said.”

“Maybe it is just a bug or nerves. But it is suspicious that you threw up three hours after that last hot spot. That sounds like radiation sickness.”

“How hard is that ‘six rads per day’ rule, anyway?”

“I don’t really know,” he said. “But if you were a refugee from Missouri, based on your symptoms I’d guess you had absorbed one hundred or two hundred rads during your drive over. But that’s not possible, right?”

“Right,” said Nelly, licking her dry lips. “Listen, there was another guy at the store. Howard was with him when he got the second part of radiation sickness, about a week ago. Anyway, my question is, how many rads did he have?”

“Hard to say. He was sick, then better, then sick again, and he died?”

“Yeah, like that.”

“Sounds like it was probably more than a thousand,” said the paramedic. “But it might have been as low as two-fifty.”

Nelly went back to Clark’s Food Mart. Since the station wagon had been unloaded, Dick offered her a ride to the shelter group.

“You okay?” he asked, as they started out.

“The medic agrees it’s probably just nerves,” she said, rolling down the window. “It’s been a big day.”

“Sure has, but now the team’s spooked.”

“Don’t worry. Send the car out with the next team.”

“I think we should wait until the truck is empty, then send it back with a full team in a small car. Or maybe two—”

Suddenly Nelly leaned over and vomited out the window.

“Sorry about that,” she said, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.

“It must’ve been the puddle,” he said, pounding the rim of the steering wheel.

“Maybe. Listen, I don’t want to go to the fallout ward, all right? I want to heal up at the shelter group. I can have a little quarantine room, or something, okay?”

“Well, I don’t know…”

“Promise me.”

“All right.”

     

~

 

The moment Dick left her in her new sickroom, Nelly’s arm began to tremble and her stomach knotted up. Fearing another episode, she opened one of the covered buckets and knelt over it, panting and sweating. Nothing came up. She groaned, thinking of the choice she had made which could not be changed, but then she broke into a cold sweat at the new choice before her.

On shaky legs she stood and began pacing. She lost all track of time, so when a gentle knock came at the door she stopped as though she had walked into a wall.

“Nelly?” asked Dick through the door. “Can you handle visitors now?”

“Yes,” she said. “Yes, please come in.” The door opened and she saw the other three behind Dick. “All of you. Has the second team come back yet?”

“They just left.”

“Like we said, the truck and a worker car?”

“Yeah, like that.”

“Great.” She moved around them and closed the door. “I—Howard, you gotta help me out here. You’ve got experience, and I—I’ve got radiation sickness.”

“It could be the flu—”

“No,” she said. “It’s radiation. I just don’t understand how I can be sick.”

“It was that puddle, wasn’t it. I should’ve gone in there—I’m older, it doesn’t matter for me.”

“No, it was my deal. I made the choice, but I can’t figure out how this happened.” She caught herself wringing her hands and stopped. “I mean, well, I got something like two hundred rads today.”

“Two hundred?” said Howard. “How’s that possible, when you were talking about ones and sixes? You said the puddle was a twelve.”

“I lied.”

“God damn it!” said Wayne.

“What?” said Howard. “Then what was it, really?”

“It must’ve been four hundred. I just can’t figure how.”

“But what did the meter say?” asked Howard.

Dick said, “It only goes up to forty, anyway.”

“Oh God.”

“I figured if it was fifty or eighty,” said Nelly, “I’d limit myself to a half hour and get only half as much. More than six, but less than a hundred.”

“And we were standing next to that,” said Wayne, “so we took a lot, too.”

“Yes,” said Nelly. She took a shuddering breath. “I had you pace it off, remember? And I told you to keep on the other side of the car. That was about five meters, far enough that you got only half of what I got.”

“So wait, I got a hundred?” cried Lorraine.

“Maybe,” said Nelly, nodding with sadness.

“This is bullshit,” said Wayne. “We need to know the real number.”

“Yeah, that’s right,” said Dick. “We’ve got to borrow a Geiger counter from Boone, go back and check it out. Then we’ll know for ourselves, and for Nelly, too.”

“Let’s go,” said Wayne, and they left.

“I can’t believe this,” said Lorraine. “I know you don’t want to have kids, but I’d like to keep my options open.”

“I’m sorry,” said Nelly. “I’m really, really sorry. I wasn’t thinking right. I was only thinking about the risk to me. We said before—when we saw Carter on TV, and we knew we were on our own, we all said that it was death by starvation in weeks or death by cancer in years.”

“Yeah, well, there’s another one in-between, which is called ‘genetic damage.’ So you can fry your eggs all you want, but when you frymy eggs, without even asking me, that makes me mad!”

Lorraine stormed out, leaving only Howard and Nelly.

“How could a puddle be four hundred per hour?” she asked.

“It’s just like the parking lot,” he said. “In the car the guys were saying how the rain probably washed the fallout off the roof and dumped it all onto the lot. It became concentrated. Except instead of being one supermarket roof, it’s that whole cornfield, or many fields, feeding into that one puddle.”

“But it’s more than fifty times the average at Ground Zero, and I don’t think we were standing in a crater!” She shook her head suddenly as a new thought occurred, then, looking at Howard with deep concern, she said, “You took one hundred today, too—how do you feel?”

“I’m okay.”

“Oh God, Howard, I’m so sorry.”

Howard sighed. “Maybe it is just the flu.”

After Howard left, Nelly threw herself down onto the cot and cried herself to sleep like a little girl.

     

~

 

As Nelly suffered through her illness the next day, Dick and Wayne took a technician to the puddle and returned with a solid number—the spot emitted two hundred and twelve rads per hour, meaning Nelly had received around one hundred and the rest of the team had gotten about fifty. Nelly was not in danger of the more advanced sickness that had killed the trucker Dave, but her convalescent period was still set for two weeks.

Nelly kept up on the salvage operations and sent out a pair of motorcycle scouts to investigate the food distribution center that trucker Dave had come from. They returned with news that the place had burned down to the ground, a big disappointment to Nelly.

On the fourth day she felt recovered from her sickness, and the town gave her a victory parade. Mr. Griswold drove the truck and Nelly sat beside him, waving to the thousands of people who lined the streets. Leading the way was Jane’s station wagon with the rest of the team, Lorraine and Howard throwing candy to the children.

“Isn’t this a bit much?” Nelly asked Mr. Griswold.

“Nonsense,” he said. “You’re a hero, their first hero. They’re afraid you might die, their first martyr. You aren’t going to do that, are you?”

“I—I hope not.”

“Then we should celebrate! We all need something to celebrate.”

Nelly felt uneasy at the accolades that seemed to whitewash the terrible mistakes she had made, but after a few more blocks she realized that she was a symbol to them, a symbol of courage and hope. It wasn’t her, it was what she represented. This made her feel a little better, but it was seeing Lorraine laugh as she leaned out the window that really gave her relief, and the parade became a wonderful thing.

Then it was back to work.

As the days rolled by, she sent teams to Fareway supermarkets in the plume, first to Webster City, near Fort Dodge, and then further afield. The Fareways at Forest City and Clear Lake, at the northern edge of the plume, were already nearly emptied by scavengers from Worth/Mitchell and Floyd. On the other hand, Algona’s Fareway in the center of the plume was a rich haul, so big that Nelly invited another shelter group in on it.

On the morning of Day 28 she approached Dick and said, “My recovery time is over—I want to get back out there.”

“No,” said Dick. “You’re not going into the plume.”

“What do you mean?” she asked, bewildered.

“You’ve been sidelined by injury. You’ve hit your limit.”

She looked into his face, hoping he was joking, and said, “But—”

“You see that, right?” asked Dick. “You can’t get sick like that again.”

“But—but what will I do?”

“What you’re doing now.”

“This is it?”

“Yeah,” he said with a chuckle. “But it seems to get bigger every day. Like this job today you’re so eager to ride with.”

“I worked hard to set it up, and I don’t want any screw-ups at Emmetsburg.”

“You’re going to have to trust us, and the teams from the other shelter groups.”

She felt her face get hot with anger. It was all slipping away from her—despite her dedicated efforts, even despite how she had risked her life at the puddle. She said, “I didn’t picture myself like this. It feels like a prison.”

“We’ve all had to make adjustments since Day Zero.”

Somewhat chastened, she said, “Sure, but this is like being a…” She thought ‘housewife,’ but instead she said, “An office worker, and I wanted to be out there, doing.”

Suddenly it hit her—the office workers she had left behind, the ones she was going to have lunch with later that day, until the mushroom cloud came. She felt guilty and sick, that she had grudgingly taken a chore to deliver papers but had survived when she should have died at the office with the rest.

And now she kept trying to run from her new home, as if they might nuke Ogden at any minute.

“Hey, you okay?” asked Dick.

“Yeah,” she said weakly. “Just…Day Zero.”

“I don’t know,” said Dick, changing the subject. “It seems to me like you’ve been promoted. I mean, you’ve taken over our salvage operations, and now you’re even controlling the operations with other groups as well.”

“I guess you’re right,” admitted Nelly. “I hadn’t thought of it like that, I just wanted to go out again.” She thought of the parade, and how the people thought she had taken those risks for them, not for her own ego. She sighed and said, “Yeah, all right.”

“Take it like a man, Nelly. Take it like a man.”

She punched him in the arm, which made her feel better.

About the Author

Michael Andre-Driussi has had stories published in such places as Interzone, ParaSpheres, and M-Brane SF, but he is best known for his Gene Wolfe reference book Lexicon Urthus, for which he was a World Fantasy Award finalist. His latest Wolfe reference book, Gate of Horn, Book of Silk, will be published in 2012.

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