A Tourist Again picks up in the immediate aftermath of what Bampy calls “Black Christmas” in my novel Fresh Water From Ben Gile Pond. This tale is a story within that story, though you don’t need to have read the book in order to get it. Though there are some references to events depicted in Fresh Water, A Tourist Again stands quite well on its own. Many fans of Fresh Water have asked me why I set it so long after the immediate cataclysm of Black Christmas when it would be really cool to see how the world initially discovered its water supply had grown tainted and how the early militias formed. Well, I’ve always thought about these ideas and had every intent of jumping into them either with a prequel book or a short story. Since I’m currently working on the sequel to Fresh Water, among other things, I figured a short story set within those early days of governmental destabilization and human herd thinning would work well as a companion piece to my novel.
That being said, I hope you all enjoy A Tourist Again…
Elizabeth (or “Beth” as all of her now dead friends had called her) hadn’t been much of a news watcher. What 16 year-old was, really? But in the aftermath of the bombings that occurred on Christmas Eve, she and her father had watched as every remaining news network reported one story almost exclusively: North Korea’s most recent ballistic missile test. After the Christmas bombings, in the days before the networks went dark, the general consensus was that North Korea had precipitated an all out nuclear war that unfolded in the dead of night and was over by morning Christmas Day. The bombs that fell in North America weren’t all nuclear, as reported by CNN and Fox, but the ones that had hit New York, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Chicago, Boston, Denver, Los Angeles, and every other densely populated urban sprawl in the United States were confirmed high-yield warheads. On Christmas Eve the residents of those cities went to bed thinking about presents and food and family the next day… the best day of the year. Those people never woke up again.
Claremont, New Hampshire was far enough from any high value targets to remain completely untouched. A small, sleepy town with an unnecessarily complicated downtown road structure (did they really need a rotary?), Claremont wouldn’t have registered on the hit lists of Russia, India, or Iran according to Beth’s father who insisted that North Korea was simply a catalyst and incapable of inflicting on its own the widespread destruction the US had seen. Still, upon their return from midnight mass, Beth and her father could see the signs of the end times in the sky, streaked orange as if the scudding clouds were burning. Concord was more than fifty miles away, but its fires were so bright that the light they cast could be perceived in various depths of illumination for hundreds of miles. The two of them had stayed up all night watching the news networks fall off one by one, some of them patching their feeds to satellite stations in order to keep themselves from going completely dark. The general consensus, most of which was wild speculation since the US government now ceased to exist, was that North Korea had shot a missile into the atmosphere and it had missed its target, landing somewhere in Japan. Japan then launched everything it had at targets already plugged into a computer system that had, like those of every other nuclear power on earth, been ready to strike at the push of a button. Or, as her father had informed her, several buttons.
“That’s the trouble with nuclear power,” Dad had said as he spent roll after roll of duct tape sealing up every window and door in the house. “When one country launches, every other country reacts, and there’s only one way to react to a nuclear strike.” He spoke calmly, matter-of-factly, apparently unphased and unsurprised at the fact that the two of them were spending their Christmas boarding up the house and watching the news instead of opening presents and prepping a turkey. But that was Dad, and were it not for his steeled reaction to the cataclysm that had unfolded overnight, Beth would have completely lost her shit.
Dad was what Beth’s generation laughingly referred to as a Doomsday Prepper, and honestly, thank God for that. He’d even tried to get on the reality show of the same name, but the network that carried it determined that he wasn’t, in their own words, hardcore enough. While Dad had insisted for years that the end times would come as the result of corporate greed ballooning to the point where the economy would collapse irreversibly in on itself (an odd stance for a lifelong Republican), he also maintained that liberal pussy peace talk would drive our country to the point where it was so vulnerable it would be ripe for digital exploitation and eventual occupation.
Yeah, Dad was a crazy conservative, but if it weren’t for his paranoia, the two of them wouldn’t have found themselves sitting on a basement full of canned food and bottled water as possible nuclear winter approached. As it would turn out, the tape on the windows and doors wouldn’t be necessary as they were more than 100 miles from Boston, which Fox News had confirmed sustained a direct hit and was now a crater in the earth. Dad’s generation had been taught during the Cold War that if you saw a mushroom cloud on the horizon and it could be concealed behind your raised thumb, you were safe from fallout. Dad also didn’t take chances though, and as Beth would eventually and tragically learn, fallout was just the beginning of their worries.
By the time New Years Day hit, every news network was dark, be it from loss of power, the destabilization of communication networks, or Dad’s working theory: the uprising of anarchic militias. Human beings, he told her, were inherently opportunistic. Lawlessness was a drug unlike any other, and without government and law enforcement people would band together and prey upon the weak. When he noticed that she was tearing up at this, he made a point to lay his arms across her chest and pull her in to him snugly.
“We’re fine, baby. Got my trusty AR right over there,” he gestured toward the partially boarded-up window where a particularly nasty assault rifle leaned barrel-up toward the ceiling, locked and loaded, ready to take life. “That’s the trouble with the liberals who got us into this mess,” he sighed, “this is the exact reason why we told them they could have our guns when they pried them from our cold, dead hands.”
Beth stifled the urge to inform him, as she had many times since her mother’s death, that Mom would still be alive today were it not for guns. But that was a subject she never broached with him. In fact, they rarely spoke about Mom at all, and she’d been gone four years now. Beth had still cried about it from time to time leading up to that last Christmas, but after the bombs fell her perspective on life shifted unalterably. With the loss of government and community and art, she also saw the departure of her humanity. In the absence of purpose in life, life itself loses all meaning, and as Claremont grew quieter and quieter with the exodus of its surviving residents, Beth too saw a part of herself vanish into the ether.
– – –
“We’ve lost WRRW,” Dad sighed, cranking the dial of his radio through every frequency before pulling the batteries and cutting the sound of static for the last time. “That’s it, and what was the last piece of news we get in New England? That some Scientology cruise ship hit the docks in Portland, Maine.” He pounded his fist on the table, causing empty soup cans to rattle across its surface before going still. With a deep breath he collected himself and snatched up the bottle of Johnnie Walker he’d been working on that day – one of more than two dozen he’d stashed away with his doomsday cache of food, water, over the counter medicine, and (most importantly) guns in the basement. Behind him the dull sunlight filtered in through a window that once overlooked the pond on their property. Motes of dust drifting through the air caught the light as they eddied about between them.
“I wonder if Tom Cruise is onboard,” Beth said, gazing wistfully down at the book she was reading (Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five) and wondering if she’d ever see a movie again, Top Gun or otherwise, for the rest of her life.
“Four months adrift, assuming they didn’t make port elsewhere before the bombs fell… I’m willing to bet that they turned to cannibalism, and if that closeted faggot was onboard I bet you they started with him.”
“Dad!” Beth growled, shooting him a stern look from the couch. Her eyes narrowed at him.
“What?” he shrugged, taking another pull on the bottle and smacking his lips wetly before setting it down on the table. “Can’t fault me for being politically incorrect when there aren’t any politics. God hit the reset button, sweetheart, and when he did he didn’t care if you were gay, straight, a tranny, or a fucking democrat… He took you just the same.”
Beth wouldn’t push it further. Like so much else she’d learned over the four months since the bombs fell, political arguments with her father did not matter. Nothing mattered anymore, and it seemed Dad was also sinking into that sentiment as over the last couple weeks his drinking had gotten much worse. It had started with a glass of scotch on New Years Morning, evolved into a glass at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and now as April showers were already helping to cultivate an unseasonably early crop of flowers around their house, he was hitting the bottle all day. On her daily trips to the basement to source out food from their already dwindling supply, she’d take stock of his remaining booze. Yesterday there had been only two bottles left. It seemed the catalyst for their inevitable re-emergence into the world would be the need to secure more liquor. Probably tomorrow. The day after at the very latest.
It wouldn’t be such a bad thing to get out. She’d wanted it for a while anyway. After a winter spent holed up alone with her father with no water to spare for showers… well, the house didn’t exactly smell like a bouquet of lilacs. They’d gone through the extent of their clean clothes after a month and a half, after that they began cycling through them again. The house drew water from its own well, but when the power grid offered up its dying gasp the electric pump in the basement went with it. They shared an orange Home Depot bucket as a toilet, which Dad would empty through the bathroom window only when the smell grew unbearable. The lasting funk seemed to hang in the bathroom.
Dad teetered a bit in his chair as he leaned back and pressed his forehead against the kitchen shelves he’d used to board up the window. His salt and pepper hair was perma-pressed to the left side of his head, the side he favored while sleeping. He’d never worn a beard at any point in Beth’s life, and she’d discovered rather quickly why: his facial hair grew in ratty patches, and even with months of growth the hair looked more like segments of a broken forest than the thick mane hipsters favored in the days leading up to that last Christmas. Beth had strived to keep herself as well put together as possible, especially in the early days of this new life, but now, four months along, she’d all but given up. Her immaculately maintained blonde hair now had months-worth of regrowth, mockingly flaunting the red roots of her natural hair color. She’d worked most of her teen life to hide her ginger status, and even though it mattered little now, it still bothered her.
“It can’t be April,” Dad grumbled, his default rough around the edges persona at full tilt. “We must have lost track of time. There are leaves on the trees!”
“We’ve counted the days religiously since New Years,” Beth countered, folding the corner of a page down and setting her book on her lap. “It’s April.”
“It just doesn’t make sense.” He pulled away from the window and took another drag on the bottle. Though Dad had adopted life as a complete drunk quite natively, he was just as paranoid as ever and seldom left the window where he kept watch for the raiders and looters who would never come around. Claremont was emptied. Anyone who knew anything had already moved on from here, into Vermont maybe, but Beth suspected Canada was a more alluring prospect. After all, what enemies did Canada have? It was entirely likely that their government was still in place up there, not that she or Dad would know now that the last bumbling idiot chattering across WRRW’s radio band had seemingly bought the farm or lost his means of generating power.
They sat in silence for an indeterminable amount of time. Many moments of their lives passed in this manner these days. Beth could tell just from her father’s words and body language that he was just as eager as she to get out of this place. She’d tried on many occasions to talk him into leaving, just packing up what they had left and going north, but something he was unwilling to share with her kept him there. Kept both of them there. In her most recent attempt to persuade him into abandoning their home, she mentioned the coast of Maine where the two of them had spent their last vacation with her mother. Walking the coastline of Ogunquit, popping in and out of the shops, singing showtunes at The Front Porch piano bar. That was and, she assumed, ever shall be the best time of her life. But Dad wouldn’t have it. He was tied to Claremont, and she was tied to him.
Beth was shaken out of her thoughts as her father thudded heavily to the floor, landing on his side as the chair toppled beside him. With a sigh, she heaved herself to her feet and crossed the living room into the kitchen. As she had countless times in recent weeks, she knelt down beside the man who had cared for her obsessively in the aftermath of her mother’s death and the falling bombs, and she pushed him over onto his back so that he could breathe easier. Straightening out, she let loose a long sigh and wondered almost comically how long she had left before she spiraled into some form of madness.
Or had she already slipped beyond its threshold without realizing it?
Without another thought, she snatched up the bottle of Johnny Walker and took a three glug pull off of it, finishing the last of the scotch before dropping it upon the table and retching as her body tried to expel the burning liquid. Clasping both sides of the table, arms rigid, she forced the vomit down until the fit passed and turned to gaze upon her father as a warming sensation blossomed in her gut.
They needed to get out of here. There was nothing left for them in this place.
Without another thought, she shuffled her way carefully into the basement, her head growing foggy, and took hold of the final bottle of scotch that rested at the top of the nearly depleted shelf that had once been stocked full with canned goods. For a moment she stood there, breathing the must of the basement and that chalky scent of cement dust. She considered taking a pull off the bottle, get herself good and fucked up before dumping it, but instead she simply walked it over to the sump pump pit, twisted off the cap, and drained its contents into the black pool of water therein.
This chapter was over. One way or another, they were getting out of Claremont.