Didn’t miss much
I pour myself a cup of coffee, listening to the cardinals chant their methodical morning tunes, and step out onto the balcony overlooking the ivory snow-capped forests of northern Virginia. Other than the birds, the surrounding area is beautifully silent and still, wrapped in a blanket of tranquility. It's one of my favorite places in the entire house, hell, in the world. My year-long experiment of disconnecting entirely from the world was quite the challenge at first—shirking off my dependency on city infrastructure and having to learn to hunt and live off the land—but I've really come to enjoy the tranquility and solitude. It'll be a shame to head back, to pick up my job where I left off. I have to say, though, I'm really looking forward to cookie dough ice cream again. Can't harvest that from your garden.
I pack up the few things I brought with me up to my remote cabin in the hills and head down to my truck. Every week, I'd come down and run the engine to make sure it stayed in working order, but besides that, I haven't really driven the thing for a whole year.
Once everything is stowed away, I hop into the cabin and start her up again, smiling at the familiar rumble beneath my seat. I admit, like a good southerner, I've missed driving my truck.
It only takes about twenty minutes for me to head down the mountain and into the small town of Wheatfield. It's the closest pocket of people to the Devils Backbone, but still about as far away from civilization as you can get. It was my fallback plan in case my experiment failed, though as I look around, it's not much more than a gas station with what looks like a farmer's market in lieu of your typical quick-mart. I'm guessing no cookie dough there.
I pull up beside one of the two pumps and get out to begin filling up. An eerie feeling washes over me as I uncover the gas tank and look around at my surroundings. There's no one here, not that being alone bothers me after a whole year to myself, it's just something about it seems off, like I'm off balance in just the slightest but I can't tell to which side. Eventually, I shrug it off, assuming people are probably still hung over from their New Year's Eve parties last night. I move to put my credit card in the machine, but then I realize the power's off. A few punched buttons later I give up, assuming it must be busted, and just hope my quarter tank can get me all the way back to Fairfax.
As I'm pulling out, I uncover an old mp3 player of mine from when I was in college in the middle console and charge it up. This should be fun, I think to myself; not only have I not listened to music for a year, but I probably haven't listened to this thing in more than ten years. I turn on the device, grinning at the iconic apple logo that appears, then start playing the Black Eyed Peas, cranking it up as loud as my ears can handle. Boom Boom Pow and other assorted gems from previous decades accompany me along the 66 Interstate for most of the way back; if it weren't the middle of winter, I'd have my windows down, too (yes, I'm one of those people).
About a half hour into my drive, I start to realize there's no one else on the road. It's a bit early for New Years Day, I know, but still, you'd think there'd be truckers or someone. My discomfort and unease only compounds at the sight of the occasional vehicle abandoned on the side of the freeway, and of one route marker that's been spray painted so that it says Interstate 666. I give my fuel gauge another wary look, then decide to pull off at a small town called Marshal. It seems to be a little bigger than Wheatfield; they have a gas station at least, and some places to get food, or so the blue sign says.
I enter the center of the town and pull into the gas station, then get out of my truck and once again try my luck at filling up. I nearly let loose an expletive, though, when I see the pump's dead screen. With a few forceful shoves, I jam my credit card into the receiver in frustration and knock on the pump.
"Come on..." I grumble.
"I don't know where you're from, boy, but those haven't worked around these parts in months."
I turn around, startled, to see an older gentleman rocking back and forth in a chair beside the adjacent mechanic's repair center. He has a long, grey beard that almost reaches the shotgun lying across his lap and a cold stare that seems to pierce straight through me. There's something hanging from his ear; it looks like a cloth mask of some sort with the words Keep America Great imprinted in white letters. "You'll be paying in cash, now, or you'll be on your way."
I take a few steps forward and raise my hand in salutation.
"Excuse me, sir, but do you have any idea what's going—"
The man pumps a round into the chamber and stops rocking.
"That'll be far enough, young man," he says ominously. I halt in my tracks, feeling the blood rush out of my face. What is this guy's deal? Is he actually going to shoot me?
"My deepest apologies," I stammer, somewhat surprised at the sound of my own voice and embarrassed by my atrophied speaking skills. "I'm not from around here. I've been away for a year now. Took a personal sabbatical up in the mountains."
The old man chuckles, low and slow at first, then deeper and heartier, each rolling wave bouncing the shotgun on his belly up and down. When I show no signs of reacting, he wipes his eyes and puts his feet up on an overturned Home Depot bucket.
"You mean you skipped all of 2020 by hiding up in the hills? Picked a hell of a year! Boy, you kill me."
I give him a confused expression and take a seat on the curb of the pump.
"What was so bad about 2020?"
At this, the old man doubles over and laughs so hard it's little more than a wheeze. It takes him several minutes to compose himself, during which he waves his hand in front of his face and has to take several breaks to spit out his dip.
"Jeez, you're not kidding are you?" he says, his face as red as a tomato. "You heard of COVID-19 at least, ain't yah?"
I wrack my brain, flipping through the archives of last year's memories.
"You mean that Chinese disease?"
"Huh, it ain't Chinese no more. Hell, listen closely and you might just hear it singing the Star Spangled Banner. Killed nearly a million of us, infected almost a third of the country. People just stopped coming out after it mutated and they started calling it COVID-20. Still wait'n on what that'll look like."
"Jeez. That's awful."
"Aw, buttercup. That ain't the half of it. I'm not much of a businessman myself, but I'm sure you can imagine what happened to them folks up on Wall Street when everyone stopped going to stores and shops. Anyways, they said somethin' 'bout the next depression and everyone just kinda lost their minds after that. You got food riots, race riots, anarchy riots, riots just for the hell of it. Whole damn country just about fell apart. Some states still tryin'a get control. 'Round October, November you got yourself some killer hornets, them terrorist bombs that took out the power grids 'cross the country, the asteroid we tried to blast away but just ended up turning into a dozen more than rained down on California and Nevada, half the troops we got left fight'n heaven knows which crazy dictator now in the Middle East and the South China Sea."
I have my head in my hands, dizzy from everything he's saying. There's no way all that could have happened in one year, but still, how else do you explain what I've seen so far? What reason could this man have to lie to me?
"So, what about DC? Fairfax?"
"Oh yeah. Good chunka her burned down with the riots. Arlington. Alexandria. What's left got looted soon after. You can understand why I've got Sheila here now, eh?" he says, patting his weapon.
After pondering the man's words a few moments longer, I stand up and make my way back to the truck.
"Where you headed, son?"
I open the door and step up into the cab.
"I'm headed back to the mountains."
He grins and begins rocking back and forth in his chair again.
"Good choice. Happy New Years, kid."