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Raging Storm (The Remnant)

By Vannetta Chapman

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Chapter 1

High Fields Ranch June 28

Shelby made her way slowly, carefully through complete darkness to the small guesthouse. Smoke drifted toward her. Max had assured her the burning structure was on the far side of the state highway. “It won’t jump the road.”

She couldn’t see it from where she stood—couldn’t see much of anything. And the silence? It was total.
No jets screaming overhead.
No television blaring in the main house.
No vehicles driving the adjacent country road.

The quiet should have been unnerving, but she took comfort in it. She walked into the house, catching the screen door so it wouldn’t bang, but Carter heard her. He was sitting in the darkened living room. It was a conversation she’d hoped to avoid, but she sat down across from him and waited. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she could make out her son’s crossed arms and tense posture.

His voice, when he finally spoke, was ragged. “It’s dangerous for you to go alone.”
“I won’t be.”
“So Max is going with you.”
“He is.”
“And I should too.” He practically spat the words, his tone bitter and hard and still mourning.
“You’re not going.”
“I’m not a child anymore.”
“I didn’t say—”
“And it’s not as if you know everything. Our house? Gone. Kaitlyn?
Dead. The town we called home my entire life is hanging on by a thread, so don’t pretend you know all the answers.”
“Carter—”

He leaned forward, elbows on knees, hands clasped together. Diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when he was four years old, he had always been a thin child, but since the flare he’d lost another ten pounds. Added to that, he was still shooting up and was now a good three inches taller than her. She suspected he would top out somewhere near six feet, the same height as his father. He had her hair—black with a tendency to curl—and her dark brown eyes. It was amazing how much she could see in the dark- ness, how well she knew her seventeen-year-old son. Anger and regret dripped off him. “It’s for me. You’re doing this for me. At least let me go with you.” “You’re staying here. This place is safe.” “I can help. I’m a good shot, and I can drive if you get tired or if...if Max has another migraine.”

She waited until the quietness from outside permeated the room—until the only thing left to hear was the chirp of crickets, a blackbird calling in the night, and the beat of her own heart.

“You make good points, but I won’t risk losing you. Max and I will take care of this. We’ll find a supply of insulin and bring it back, and I think— I think that Max’s parents are going to need you here.”

“To fish? You want me to stay here and fish while you risk your life, risk Max’s life...” He dropped his head into his hands. Shelby stood, moved over to the couch, and sat beside him. As she’d done so many times over the years, she rubbed his back in slow, gentle circles. She waited and prayed.

Carter didn’t turn toward her, but his voice broke when he said, “I’ve killed a man. Maybe more than one. And I watched Kaitlyn die in front of my eyes. I don’t want to stay here. I want to be doing something.”

But he must have known that his words wouldn’t change her mind. Shelby understood that he was talking to himself, that he was trying to work through all that had happened and this new world they were try- ing to survive in.
Without glancing her way, he stood and walked out of the room.

Max waited beside the 1984 Dodge Ramcharger, holding a thermos of coffee.
The two-door SUV was a tough off-road vehicle. More importantly it provided critical storage space which could be accessed from inside. The paint was faded to gray, the cloth upholstery worn thin, and the odometer had turned over more than once. What mattered was that the engine still worked, in spite of the flare. There wasn’t a computer chip on the beast, which made Max all the more comfortable about taking it to Austin.

His watch read six o’clock straight up when Shelby stepped out of his grandparents’ cottage and walked toward him. She wore cargo pants, which provided plenty of pocket space—they’d also be lighter and dry more quickly than jeans. A long-sleeved shirt covered a cotton tank top. Her backpack was slung over one shoulder, she wore hiking boots on her feet, and her black curls were pulled back and stuffed into a Texas Rangers ball cap. Five foot seven and thin, she was tougher and more resilient than any woman he’d ever known.

The sky had lightened to a robin’s egg blue—pale and soft and fragile. “Carter?” she asked. Max shook his head and offered her the coffee. “What’s in the backpack?”
“Stuff.” She sounded defensive and must have realized it. “A change of clothes, a first aid kit—I didn’t want to pack it in the back in case we need it quick—and my writing supplies.”

“That’s a good idea, Shelby. Someone should chronicle this.” “Our grandchildren will want to know how it all fell apart.” “And how we put it back together again.”
She didn’t answer that. Shelby was once an optimist, but that trait seemed to have disappeared with the power grid.

“Your Ruger 22?”
“Outer pocket. Loaded, and I have one box of extra shells.” “Good.”
They both turned to watch Max’s parents, Georgia and Roy Berkman, make their way from the main house to where the Dodge was parked. In their late sixties, they were physically fit and accustomed to a life without certain luxuries.
Georgia handed Shelby two paper lunch sacks. “You both need to eat.”
She pulled Shelby into a hug. “Don’t worry about Carter. We’ll watch after him.”
Max shook hands with his father, who nodded once and pulled him into a bear hug. Whatever needed to be said had already been tossed around not once but many times. “I called ahead on the CB to check with the night watch. Roads appear to be clear.”

“Are you sure you have everything you need?” Georgia clasped her arms around her middle. “We’re fine, Mom. Food, water, items to trade, extra fuel.” “You’re taking the rifle?” Pop asked.

“I am, as well as my Sig P232, and Shelby has the Ruger.”

The door to the shed banged shut, and Carter emerged—carrying a fishing rod and a bucket. He stared at them for a moment, and then he turned in the opposite direction, toward the creek.

“Six days, seven at the most,” Max said, folding his long frame into the driver’s seat of the battered Dodge.

“Godspeed, son.” His pop stepped closer to his mother, as if together they would find strength for the week ahead.

Shelby glanced after Carter one final time, and then she climbed into the SUV beside him. Max pulled away on the caliche road, headlights off, his parents a shrinking image in his rearview mirror. “Carter will be all right.”

“I know he will.” Shelby jerked off the baseball cap and stared out the front window. Dark curls framed her face, masking her expression.
“It’s going to take a while.”

“For?”

“Him to adjust to life on a farm? Get over Kaitlyn’s death? Forgive you for not letting him go? Take your pick.”

Shelby sighed and reached for the thermos. “Parenting doesn’t get any easier, even with global disaster.” “Did you think it would?”
“I hoped.”

They rode in silence, stopping at the roadblock for an update. Farm equipment and diesel trucks stretched across the width of the road—from fence post to fence post. Four men, aged twenty to sixty-five, perched atop the vehicles, each holding a rifle.
“Anything?” Max asked.

“It’s been quiet all night.” Ray Garrett hopped off the truck and walked over to where they waited. The man was a few years older than Max, six feet tall, with a wiry build and a farmer’s tan. He nodded toward Shelby, who was standing next to her open door, and shook hands with Max.

“Fire’s still spreading on the east side of the highway. There’s only a light wind, but enough to push it south.”
“Through Townsen Mills?”
“Probably. The river will stop it to the south of there.”
“Any more looting?” Shelby asked.
“Hard to say. No one has attempted to come this way in two, maybe three days. But on the state road? Your best bet is not to stop—for anything.” “We won’t,” Max assured him. Garrett wished him a safe trip, and then he signaled for his son, Logan, to back up one of the trucks and allow them through.

When they reached the main road, they began to see signs things had worsened.

The first vehicle they passed was burned out with no sign of its occupants. The second wasn’t burned, but the car was riddled with bullet holes and the driver was slumped over the wheel. There was no need for Max to stop. It was plain enough that the man was dead.

“Looks like a war zone.” Shelby glanced right, then left—right then left, as if she needed to scan for hijackers. She’d pulled out her notebook and pen and was jotting down a few notes, but she stopped when they reached Townsen Mills. Little more than a crossroads, it had once been a quaint place to stop and fill up the gas tank, grab a sandwich, and shop for antiques. Approaching from the north, they saw a minivan stranded in the middle of their lane. Max slowed to maneuver around it.
“Maybe they broke down.”

A string of belongings stretched away from the open door of the van and to the south of the vehicle—blue jeans, a child’s shirt, someone’s paja- mas. Two hundred yards from the vehicle, a suitcase lay abandoned and empty. “They must have been running...running from someone.” Shelby leaned out her window. There was no sign of the van’s occupants. Everything on the east side of the road had burned. Smoke rose from collapsed dwellings, but still there was no sign of people. The few buildings that lined the road to the west had been deserted when they’d driven through the week before. Recently someone had taken a paintbrush and written across the front of the building in bold red strokes.

“‘The end is near?’” Shelby sighed in disgust. “They could at least put something original if they’re going to bother with graffiti.” Smoke began to drift across the road. Shelby reached into the backseat, grabbed two T-shirts from the bag she had packed, and handed one to Max. He held it over his nose and mouth. Already his throat was scratchy, and visibility had dropped to less than five feet. Just when he wondered if they should stop or turn around, they crossed the river and drove out of the haze, the remnants of the fire giving way to a beautiful June morning. Max resettled the ball cap on his head. “I’m surprised at how quickly we descended into lawlessness.”

“You are?”
“What? You didn’t realize I was once an idealist?”
“I’m the writer. I’m the one who succumbs to flights of fancy. You are the realist, the pragmatist.” She jerked a thumb toward the scene behind them as Max accelerated. “I thought you would have expected this.”

But he hadn’t. He’d clung to the law, even when there was no way to enforce it. Less than three weeks since the flare, and already the area he’d grown up in looked like a setting for the latest blockbuster apocalyptic movie.

Sunshine spilled across fields green with summer crops—hay and sorghum and corn, precious little corn. Occasionally, Max caught light reflecting off a windshield.
“Lookouts,” Shelby murmured. “Guarding crops—more signs of the time.”

They didn’t stop or even slow until they approached the north side of Abney.
A billboard sign, riddled with bullet holes, hung haphazardly from a single support. “Welcome to Abney. Enjoy the Texas Hill Country.”

And just beyond the sign, an even bigger roadblock crossed all five lanes of the road. Max stopped the Dodge, leaving the keys in the ignition. “Keep the rifle close.” But once he began walking toward the trucks, he recognized several of the men on patrol.

“Josh.” He shook hands and gestured toward the reinforced road- block—which now consisted of an eighteen-wheeler, a tractor, four trucks, and a flatbed. “Had trouble?” “A fair-sized group of men struck two nights ago. Frank Kelton was killed and two others injured.” Max stared toward the downtown area. Finally he shook his head. “Sorry to hear that. Frank was a good man.”

Josh scratched at his face where he’d sprouted a full beard. “Perkins upped patrols after that.” “Makes sense.” Max glanced back at Shelby. “We’re just going through, on our way to Austin.” “Mayor wants to see you both first.” “Are you kidding me?”
Josh shrugged. “She left word. Guess she figured you’d come through eventually, on account of Carter.”

“Look, we don’t have time to meet with Mayor Perkins. I’ll be happy to stop by on our way back—” “Can’t do it.” Josh was already signaling to one of the other men standing guard. “Get on the horn to the mayor. Tell her I’ll be by with Max in a few minutes. And get someone here to take my place.”
“What’s this about, Josh?”

“Think she told me?” Josh laughed, but it was a hollow sound. “I’m just a grunt and happy to be one. Anyone who mans a shift receives an extra portion of that week’s harvest.”
“Harvest?”
“Deer, hogs, dove—you name it.” He glanced at Shelby, who had joined them.
“What’s this about?”
“Josh was just explaining to me new procedures the mayor has implemented.”
“She sends a hunting group out every day, and what they get, well, we can’t exactly keep it in the freezer. There’s a rotating schedule for folks to receive a portion of that day’s take, but if you work a shift your name goes on the schedule twice. My nephews are growing, and they need the meat.”
“All right. We’ll go see Perkins.”
“Why would we go see Perkins?” Shelby had again donned the baseball cap, and now she pulled it down to block out the sun.
“Apparently she’s insisting we stop by.”
“Wasn’t my idea,” Josh reminded them. “I’m just the messenger here.” “Got it. But Josh, remember that we are neighbors. I own a house three blocks over and so did Shelby before it was destroyed in the gas line explosion.”

“We’re not the enemy here,” Shelby added. “We belong in Abney.”
“Of course you do, which is the only reason I’m going to allow you to keep your weapons.” He walked away, leaving Max and Shelby impatiently waiting.
“What can she possibly want with us?”
“I’m not sure, but we don’t have time for this.”
“Agreed.” She tapped her fingers against the thermos she was still holding. “Maybe we can sneak out the south side once he lets us through.” “Not a chance. He’s going to escort us.”

Josh made a circular motion over his head, and someone manning the barricade jumped down and backed up the flatbed truck, leaving barely enough space for Max to squeeze the Dodge through.

“They’re being careful,” Shelby muttered.
“If they’re being this paranoid with someone they know, imagine how they treat strangers.”

Once they were on the other side, Josh jumped into a small sedan and proceeded to lead them toward city hall.

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