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Powerless

by E.N. Gussler 5 months ago in Short Story
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Kill Or Be Killed

It’s been two weeks since the power went out. At first it was believed to be a temporary glitch, that it would come back on eventually, but now even the National Guard was moving out of the area and encouraging people to stay in their homes.

As darkness fell, Liddy remained at the table by the window, curtains drawn, but pulled out enough that she could watch the movements outside. She watched as day turned to night and slept for a couple hours with her head on the table before watching night turn into another day. Gunshots echoed off of the buildings a couple alleys over followed by screaming. Glass shattered as someone broke the windows in the Circle K market across the street and people began looting. Liddy could see it was going south, and would likely get worse.

Neighbors knocked on doors at all hours of the day and night, asking if anyone had any extra supplies. Mr. Perkins from 2D got a little hostile when Kate cracked the door and told him they didn’t have any toilet paper to spare.

“There are only two of you! You can make a roll last another week!”

It took both Liddy and Kate forcing the door shut to stop him from barging into their apartment.

They sat together at the window that night, watching the sun dip down behind the empty office buildings, casting elongated ghostly shadows along the nearly empty roadways. Liddy turned the crank on her emergency radio for a solid minute before flipping it on and searching for a station for an update. She turned the volume down low so she wouldn’t wake Kate who fell asleep, though only after repeatedly assuring that Liddy would keep watch.

There is no news from the government on when the power will be back on. Nationwide outages have people in a panic. Major looting has been reported all over the state. Keep your loved ones close, people.

Liddy thought about her parents. She had enough fuel and supplies stockpiled that she could get both her and Kate to their farm in Montana. If they were going to go, it needed to be now. Before things get so bad that they lock down the city or shut down the roads.

Liddy spent the evening pouring over an old Thomas Guide and plotting out a route. They would avoid the coast highway. While a beautiful drive, she suspected a lot of people would be on those roads. She remembered the fishing and camping trips her dad would take her on when she was younger.

What was the name of that town we used to stay in? The way out there was largely untraveled. What was it called? It started with a B…Bishop. That’s it, Bishop. We will go towards Bishop, along the Sierra Nevadas.

After marking out the route in red so it would be easier for Kate to navigate for her, Liddy changed into clean jeans and pulled on a tank top. She dug through a box her dad had sent her last year that she had put in her closet. Inside was another box with writing on top.

Hey Slugger, open this when you need to pack out and come home. You’ll know when it is time. Love you, Pop

Liddy ran her fingers over the writing and the weathered old tape crinkled and more of the adhesive gave way. She took a deep breath and pulled back the tape, peering into the box. Inside she found another note.

Holsters – two for belts, two shoulders

.45 and .9mm – for the holsters

Knives – one with a belt holster, one for your boot

Velvet bag – gold coins for currency

Trust your instincts. If it feels off, it is. Do not let your guard down for one second. Everyone is trying to survive and desperation makes people do terrible things. Travel the backroads and come home.

Love, Pop

Liddy placed the items on her bed and looked out into the living room at Kate asleep on the red sofa. She knew that Kate wasn’t ready for any of this, but wasn’t sure she was either. Still it was up to her to keep them safe and get them to her parents’. They’d only met six months ago when Kate answered Liddy’s ad for a roommate, but she couldn’t leave her here. She strapped a belt holster onto her belt, on the backside of her right hip and put one of the shoulder holsters under her left arm. The left side of her belt would be the right spot for the big knife she figured.

In the back of her closet, she dug through her box of stuff from high school and found her heavy black boots with the steel toes. Setting them on the floor by the couch, she sat in the chair and put them on. Gathering her shoulder-length hair into a ponytail, she walked into the kitchen and started to fill bins with supplies and grabbed a few flats of water. Quietly, she carried them out to her Jeep. Covered by the night and aided by a headlamp, she filled the back with the bins, water and the giant first aid kit her dad had given her when she got her paramedic certification. She covered the contents of the Jeep with a couple heavy blankets and pillows before throwing in two large backpacks she used to use for long distance hiking, which she filled with clothing for both of them.

By 1 am, the Jeep was loaded and Liddy crept upstairs and woke Kate.

“Kate. Kate. We need to go. Get up.”

As Kate began to wake, Liddy put her finger to her lips to keep her quiet.

“I already loaded my Jeep.”

Liddy blew out their emergency oil lamps and put them into the old orange crate they kept them in, before leading Kate down stairs and out to the Jeep.

“Where are we going?” Kate’s voice was tense, even at a whisper.

“My parents’ farm in Montana. We’ll be safe there.”

Kate took the Thomas Guide from her, “You navigate. I’ll drive.” Liddy tried to crack a smile to ease Kate’s fear and started the engine.

“Lid, what about gas? No power means pumps won’t work.”

“There’s enough fuel to get us there in the back.”

Liddy, shifted into drive, pulled out of the garage, and took a right, heading towards the edge of town, cautiously checking down each side street to avoid anyone looting the nearby shops. Liddy flipped on the headlights and when she rounded the corner she saw the line of cars waiting to get on the freeway.

“Oh man, freeway’s packed!”

"We have to avoid larger cities. We'll go off-road through Silverado until we get to a clear highway.” Liddy noticed Kate had that look she gets when she's pretending to be comfortable. “Hey, you want coffee? I’ve been stashing a few for a while now. They’re in the back seat. I even have biscotti.”

Kate smiled and perked up. “Really? Look at us, everyone else fighting over toilet paper and you have us eating biscotti and drinking Starbucks.” She took off her seatbelt and leaned into the back seat. Pulling back the blanket, she uncovered a rifle case. Her smile faded instantly, slumping back in her seat. “Lid, you have a gun?”

“Huh? Oh yeah.”

“I really don’t like guns.” Kate’s voice shook.

“Why not?”

“My dad was shot when I was five.” Kate’s voice was quiet, the words rough as she spoke. “He drove for a trucking company and some guys tried to steal his cargo.”

Liddy sat in silence for a few minutes, not knowing what to say or how to lessen the pain Kate was feeling.

“I’m really sorry Kate.” Liddy thought for a moment, placing gentle hand on Kate's arm.“I know they can be scary, but we might need them to keep us safe.”

Kate stared silently ahead.

“If it makes you feel any better, I’ve been shooting since I was five.” Liddy cracked a little smile.

“How long have you had these guns, Liddy?” Kate’s voice was irritated, laced heavily with accusation.

“The rifle has always been under my bed. The pistols were in a box my dad sent me a year ago, but I hadn’t opened the box because he said not to until I needed to.” Liddy didn’t understand why it mattered how long she had had them. “Look, it isn’t like I lied to you, I just didn’t think it mattered that I had it. Ok?”

“Are there safeties on them?” Kate glared at Liddy from the darkness of the passenger seat.

“Yes.” Liddy sighed. “Come on, grab those coffees. I’m starving.”

They ate in silence as they drove past barricades in front of neighborhoods, civilians set up and watching every passing car. Kate shifted in discomfort.

“Guarding their supplies.” Liddy put her hand on Kate’s “We aren't a threat, we are just passing by.” She took the turn out into Silverado Canyon. The two lane road was deserted, everyone having headed towards the big cities in search of supplies.

They rode in silence watching the deserted world stream by, taking a series of off-road trails through the foothills before driving a less traveled route up through the mountains and connecting with highway 395.

Liddy watched Kate doze off, thankful that she was missing the scenery at this point. The city looks like a ghost town. Businesses without windows, the once bright paint of store fronts, blacked and graying under the soot from frantically scavenging civilians. She drove slowly through town, avoiding overturned benches and piles of debris.

Pop always said that when things went south, it would look like the aftermath of war within days. No kidding.

“Hey! Hey! Do you have food?!? Water?” A group of people, dirty with what appeared to be weeks-worth of grunge, were shouting at them, running towards the Jeep. They didn’t appear armed, but Liddy’s heart pounded and her hands shook. She gripped the .45 and pulled it out of the holster, setting it on her leg. She looked at the tall guy and shook her head, but still they approached. “Hey stop! Please” They shouted at her.

“Kate. Kate, wake up.”

“Oh my God, what are you doing?” Her eyes locked on the gun in Liddy’s lap.

“Kate, you need to take this.” Liddy, grabbed the 9mm, holding it out to her.

“I-I can’t.”

Liddy shoved it into Kate’s hands. “You have to.”

Kate set the gun on the center console, put her face in her hands and started crying. “I’m sorry Lid, I can’t.”

“Back Off!” She shouted through the window, and sped up as much as she safely could. She weaved through the streets until they made it out of the city, strapping the .45 into the holster secured to the underside of her steering column where it was easier to get.

“I’m sorry.” Liddy apologized after 30 minutes of pregnant silence. “I shouldn’t have yelled at you.”

Kate stared out the window and sighed. “It’s fine.”

She knew it wasn’t, but let it go. She took the 9mm and put it back in her shoulder holster.

The road seemed without end or curve. Every so often they would pass by clusters of small buildings dotting the deserted landscape a mile or so off the highway. Over the next couple hours they saw only a few cars. Mostly traveling south, looking for supplies in larger cities. Ahead they saw a car pulled over on the side of the road, two men stood outside the car trying to flag them down.

“Shouldn’t we help them?” Kate asked when she spotted the car.

“No, we have to assume people will try to take what we have.”

“How can you be so heartless?”

“I’m not heartless. I’m trying to keep us safe.”

“I get that, but we have enough supplies for like a year.” Kate rolled her eyes waving at the air dismissively.

Liddy hesitated, letting off accelerator for a minute. “I don’t think it’s a good idea. I’m sure they’ll be fine.”

“They need help Liddy. One of them looks injured.”

Liddy sighed and slowed, pulling over just ahead of them. “Ok. But you can’t tell them what we have.”

“Ok” Kate was already opening the door and Liddy grabbed her arm to stop her.

“I’m serious. NOT A WORD.”

“OK.”

“Swear!”

“I swear, god you’re paranoid.”

Liddy returned the .45 to the holster on her hip, pulling her flannel closed as she stepped out. Her entire childhood had been full of conditioning and instinct took over. The driver, legs outside, definitely injured. Blood pooled on the ankle of his jeans noting a gash on his shin. A second man held up a sign that said "Injured Need Help". There was no one else in the car that Liddy could see. Under the car, sticky black oil oozed and congealed.

“Are we glad to see you!” The uninjured one shouted as the girls approached. “Do you have any bandages?”

“Yeah, we have plenty!” Kate turned to run back to the Jeep and Liddy pinched her arm.

“Not a word!” Liddy growled under her breath and stopped about ten feet from them. “Anyone else injured?”

“No, just him.” The guy started to approach.

Liddy reached back and touched her gun. “How many are with you?”

“It’s just us. Look, we just need some bandages.” The injured one shouted back. “We don’t want your other supplies.” He opened the rear passenger door. “We have our own, see? We just don’t have enough bandages to close this thing.”

Liddy took a few steps closer to inspect the guy’s leg. “You might need stitches.” She turned to Kate and gave her a nod. “Go grab a gauze packet, tape and some alcohol pads.”

“Thanks, I appreciate it. I’m John, he’s Seth.” The injured guy extended a hand.

Liddy approached slowly, watching Seth out of the corner of her eye and shook John’s hand.

“Lidia.”

Kate came running back with a small packet. “Dang Liddy, you have that stuff OCD level organized.” She handed John the packet and smiled. “Hold this, I’ll clean it up for you.”

Seth walked towards Liddy. “Know anything about cars?”

“Why?”

“Well judging by your truck there, I’m guessing you do the work on it yourself.” He said with an awkward laugh. “I think we have an oil leak.”

“Judging by the smoke coming out of the hood, I’d say you cracked the block.”

“So we’re stranded.” Seth said with a sigh.

Liddy nodded and wished them good luck before pulling Kate away and back to the Jeep.

“Can’t we take them with us?”

Liddy looked at Kate with disbelief. “No.” and shoved her into the passenger seat. “No way.”

She sat behind the wheel for a minute before starting up the engine. “Someone will stop to help them, Kate.”

“Or kill them and take their supplies.” Kate sulked for the next 10 miles. “I can’t believe you didn’t help them.”

"We helped."

A few miles down the road, Liddy pulled off into the wilderness and stopped at an old rest stop with a picnic table up against a large rock face, surrounded by trees.

“Out.”

“What?”

“Get out, Kate.” She grabbed the extra belt holster from the backseat, and walked behind the Jeep, Kate reluctantly in tow.

“What are we doing here?” Her face went ashen as she watched Liddy approach her with the .9mm.

“You're a liability. You're gonna get us killed. You just offered information to those guys and put us at risk, even though I told you not to.”

Kate looked at Liddy and then the gun.

“Oh my god. It’s a shooting lesson.” Liddy rolled her eyes. “Like I’d waste a bullet shooting you when I could just leave you out here if I wanted to go alone.” She handed the .9mm to Kate again. “Take it.”

“I told you, no guns.”

“You like to live right? It might come down to shoot or die.” She took Kate’s hand and set the gun in it.

Reluctantly, she closed her fingers and Liddy began teaching her the basic safety elements. Keep it pointed at the ground, don’t put your finger on the trigger until you are ready to fire, relax, breathe, use both hands and keep your eyes open.

Liddy went through all the information that her dad always drilled into her. Like second nature, it rolled off her tongue and her hands corrected Kate’s.

“Hold it like this. You'll have more control and the recoil won’t kill your hand.”

She set up a couple empty water bottles on some rocks about 10 feet away.

“Focus and Relax. Shoot the bottle on the left. When you are ready, let out a breath and squeeze the trigger.”

Kate fired, missing the bottle.

“It’s ok. Try again.”

After a couple tries, Kate hit the bottles, popping noises echoing off the surrounding rocks. Liddy grabbed the other holster and slid it over Kate's waistband before securing the gun for her.

“There. Now you’re ready.”

“How do you know this stuff?”

“My dad was a Navy Seal. He’s retired now but he always said that someday something could happen and that I needed to be ready. I always thought he was just overprotective or even a little nuts, but I guess he was right.”

“So he taught you to shoot guns and told you the world was ending?” Kate let out a little laugh.

“Something like that.” Liddy laughed at how silly it all sounded. “Why don’t you practice some more?”

“Actually, I’m really hungry.”

“Ok, why don’t you put some lunch together.”

Kate got a bin out of the Jeep and threw together a few sandwiches on a paper plate. “Come, eat.”

Liddy whipped around and put her hand on the gun, ready to draw, at the sound of footsteps coming down the gravel road.

“Hello fellow travelers!” A very large man with a heavily loaded pack approached. “That looks good, mind if I join you?” He sat down at the picnic table and took a sandwich. After a huge bite, he popped open one of their bottles of water. “That your Jeep?” He shoveled the sandwich in his mouth and grabbed the other before he had finished swallowing. “Name’s Mike.” He looked them both over. “Leave it, kid. “ He eyed Liddy’s holster. “No one has to get hurt.” He reached back and grabbed a large knife, stabbing it into the table. “Sit.”

Kate slowly obeyed.

“What do you want?” Liddy kept her eyes trained on the stranger.

“You know, I been out here since the power went out. Hardly seen anyone. And That’s a lotta supplies.” He nodded in the direction of the Jeep. “More than enough for you two. So, I figure you can share.”

“Sorry, not gonna happen.” Liddy tried to sound confident and direct.

“See, that’s what you don’t get.” He didn’t look up at her, just kept grabbing food out of the bin on the table. “I'm not asking.”

Liddy felt the point of a knife press against her back and Mike got a sick grin on his face.

“You're gonna share it." He set his pack on the table and started to shove their supplies into it.

Liddy looked at Kate and motioned with her eyes towards the gun on Kate’s backside.

Kate’s eyes went wide and she shook her head.

“Jimmy, take her gun. On her hip.”

Jimmy grabbed Liddy’s rear as he pulled out her .45. Her stomach churned and her skin crawled as he leaned in, his breath hot and sticky on her neck, and he whispered an obscene suggestion of what he wanted to do to them, then tucked the .45 into his waistband and shoved her over towards the table.

“Sit” he barked as Mike got up and walked towards her Jeep.

Liddy sat next to Kate at the picnic table while she watched Mike. Jimmy stood on the other side of the table, eyeing them. Mike lifted the back of the Jeep and started to pull flats of water and bins of food out, tossing them to the ground.

“You are prepared, I’ll give you that.” Mike laughed like a kid on Christmas morning “Check this out, Jim.”

Jimmy looked away for a minute and Liddy reached behind Kate and grabbed the .9mm, hiding it in her lap.

“They got sweets? Or are these two dessert?” Jimmy’s laugh was almost as unnerving as his gaze.

Mike made his way to the passenger side door and Liddy remembered the rifle case under the blanket in the backseat.

“Well what do we have here?”

As Jimmy bent down to fill his backpack near the Jeep, Liddy fired two shots. The first one hit Mike in the back of the right shoulder, the second in his left knee. Mike fell to the ground like a sack of potatoes, moaning and hollering for Jimmy to shoot her. As Jimmy reached for the gun in his waistband, Liddy squeezed off one more shot, hitting Jimmy in the chest and he went down, dropping the .45 as blood began to pool. Mike tried to crawl over to him, reaching for the gun. Liddy didn’t hesitate, shooting him in the forehead.

Adrenaline coursed as she walked over and grabbed the .45 out of the sticky pool accumulating around the two men and returned to the picnic table, falling into the seat. Her face paled and her head started spinning.

Kate started to cry. “Y-you shot them.”

Liddy froze, unable to move. She just sat there, her hollow gaze locked on the two men, bleeding out into the dirt.

“They’re dead, Lid!”

Liddy’s stomach lurched and she vomited. Her knees went weak and she sunk to the ground, burying her face into her hands to hide the tears. She gathered herself and stifled the tears, pulling herself back to her feet.

“Kate,” she choked back the threat of more vomit. “Kate, we need to get our stuff back in the Jeep and get out of here.”

Kate ran past her, slumped in the front seat of the Jeep, and started to sob, leaving Liddy to toss their stuff back into the overturned bins. With everything loaded back up, a stranger stared back in the eyes of her reflection.

As they left the scene in their dust, sun setting behind silhouetted mountains, the silence hung heavy between them. Liddy watched Kate out of the corner of her eye as she plastered herself against the door, the space between them, a cavern. Liddy tried to say something several times, but nothing that came to mind seemed right.

“Kate? You ok?” Her voice was rough, barely more than a whisper.

Kate nodded but didn’t turn to look at her.

“You sure? You’ve been silent for 30 miles.”

Kate stayed silent but Liddy heard her stomach protest their missed meal.

“Here” Liddy handed her a granola bar and a bag of beef jerky. “You need to eat.” She reached back to the cooler behind her seat and fished out a Pepsi. “Here, keep your blood sugar up. Ok?”

Kate ate them in silence, avoiding eye contact.

As the milky-way swirled overhead and the velvet night sky wrapped around the mountains on either side, Kate watched the shadow trees stream past.

“Where’d you learn to shoot like that?” Her voice sounded hollow.

“I told you, I grew up on military bases.” Liddy shrugged. “I’m actually a three time Junior Champion in both rifle and pistol. Well, I was anyway.”

“Seriously?” Kate finally looked at her with red, swollen eyes. “It’s like I don’t even know you.”

Liddy sighed and pulled to the side of the road and flipped it into park.

“I don’t recognize myself!” Liddy worked to hold back tears. “I hadn’t shot a gun in years. My dad just always said I'd need these skills, so he made me practice. When this all started happening, I just went on autopilot.” Liddy took Kate’s hands. “All I could think of was that guy opening the back door, taking the rifle and either killing us or taking everything and leaving us for dead. I couldn’t let that happen. So I saw the shots line up, kind of in slow motion you know? And I shot. I didn’t mean to scare you, I was just trying to keep us safe.”

Understanding washed over Kate’s face as Liddy let her stoic façade crumble. Kate stared out the windshield and the road ahead. “What do you think we’ll run into out there?”

“I don’t know.”

Kate took the .9mm off of the center console and tucked it into the holster on her hip. “Well, at least we're prepared for whatever it is.”

“Hopefully nothing like that again.” Liddy tried to sound strong and turned back on to the highway, wiping away the tear that ran down her left cheek.

Short Story

About the author

E.N. Gussler

A California native living in Ohio, I pull inspiration from my travels & life around me. I graduated from the Ohio State University & hold a degree in English & Creative Writing.

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