Reston Virginia, November 3
It was about 11:30 a.m. when the doorbell rang . Gayle had just returned from a morning in the park exercising and watching Jonathan play in the piles of autumn leaves. She loved their smell, the crisp air and the way it made Jonathan's cheeks so rosy as he excitedly ran to and fro. The only thing better would be to have a dog for him to play with. She would have to get him a puppy soon. Annoyed, she thought, why do they always have to come just when I'm about to fix lunch? She headed for the door to see what it was. She looked through the peephole first—always a good practice—and saw a young black woman. Oh no, not another Bible pusher, she thought to herself. Oh well, better open the door and see who it is.
Gayle opened the door a crack until the chain came taut. "What do you want?" She announced in a harsh voice, showing her annoyance. There was a little boy, about Jonathan's age, clinging to the black girl's leg.
"Is Jason here. I've come to talk to Jason. I haven't been able to reach him on the phone."
"No, Jason isn't here. Who are you? And why are you asking?" Gayle found her voice becoming shrill. Who was this girl looking for her brother? It angered and troubled her because she didn't know where Jason was, herself.
"I'm Shauna Wilson. You know, your neighbor. I used to live over there." She pointed off in the direction of her house out of sight because of the trees.
"Shawna? Shawna? You mean that little girl I used to see going to Sunday school with her mother?"
"Yes, only I'm grown up now. I was in Jason's class at *high school. He saved me that day."
Gayle removed the chain and opened the door a bit more, leaning on it. "He saved you? Were you hurt in the blast?"
"Well, not exactly. I was frightened out of my mind. Jason was so calm. He took us home. I don't know what I would've done without him. My knight in shining armor took me home in his Camaro. Where is he? I've got to see him. He never answered my calls." Her eyes teared over and she started to sob.
The thought of Jason made Gayle turn misty too. She opened the door further, reached down and took Shauna by the hand and pulled her in. Shauna's little boy was still hanging onto his mommy's leg, shyly looking out at Jonathan, also hanging onto Gayle's leg. "Come. Come on in. Please come over here and sit down. Tell me everything. Your boy is so cute. What's his name?" Both were crying now and the boys, sensing their mothers' sadness began to cry too.
"He 's... he 's... he's Jason. I hope you don't mind that I named him after your brother." Shauna sat down on the couch and pulled her boy up on her lap, hugging him and trying to calm him. "Now, now, Jason. You're a big boy now. Big boys don't cry." She wiped the tears from his cheeks with her fingers. Jason stopped crying and kept staring at Jonathan.
"My boy's name is Jonathan, named after his father. He's four. How old is Jason? He's got lovely blue eyes." Changing the subject had helped Gayle regain her composure. Jonathan was hiding behind his mommy on the couch, peeking out at Jason. "The fact is I don't know where Jason is. I know he's alive because my Uncle told me so. My Uncle James Forsythe is a general. I don't even know what branch he works for, only that it is very high up and doing very top-secret work. When I told him that Jason had disappeared, he told me that Jason was in service to the country and that he couldn't be contacted for 20 years. That was a year ago. I tried to look him up on all the service rosters, they always came up with nothing. It's as though he's disappeared from the face of the Earth. All I have left of him here is his room and some of his things. Some of them are gone and probably up at Grandma Gail's cabin." She started to cry again.
Seeing Gayle's distress, Shauna took Gayle's hand in hers and began patting it. "Jason's five. Had him right after I left here. My Momma and I drove to Akron. It took us six days. We were stuck in traffic so bad it took us two days just leave the area even with all the dust in the air. We didn't have any food or water, ran out of gas and money, and had to sleep in the car three nights. It was terrible. If it hadn't been for kind people that gave us food and drink and took us in, and then gave us some gasoline to go on, we might never have made it. My Momma broke down so bad, that I had to drive most of the way. I'll never think bad about white people again. They were so kind. All those people who yelled and cursed at us blocking the way were in just as bad shape as we were. The only thing they had left was to yell and curse. I lost my cell phone. I lost Jason's number. It made me want to die. We made it to Aunt Rhoda's though. Been there ever since. Momma ain't never coming back. That's why I'm here. To sell the house."
"Jonathan, why don't you show Jason your room so that his Momma and I can talk." Gayle reached around behind her and pulled Jonathan down to his feet off the couch. Jonathan shyly stepped forward while Shauna let Jason down from her lap, took his hand and led him out of the room.
"Momma is too scared to come back. She thinks it’ll happen again and she doesn't want to be anywhere near a big city. Aunt Rhoda's farm is 30 miles from Akron, so we bought a mobile home and are living there. It isn't like living here, but she won't come back. I had to grow up a lot. She hardly does anything anymore. I had to get a job while she took care of Jason. This whole thing ruined our lives. And now I can’t find Jason..." She teared up again. The sound of noisy play came from down the hall.
"It sounds like they found Jonathan's trucks. He really enjoys them. Especially when he's got someone to crash into. Don't worry, they're Tonka, and tough. I know just how you feel. I was caught in the blast in Bethesda, and, although I walked out, I had a brain hemorrhage and was in a coma for a year—lost my memory. A kind man, Dr. Jonathan Chambers, nursed me back to health and memory. I fell in love with him and had his baby, only to have him die of a heart attack before Jonathan was born.
"When I got back here a year ago, this house was just as I remembered when my parents had it—they both died in the blast. I was surprised to find it in such good condition until I learned that the next-door neighbors, Ralph and Harriet Hoover had taken care of it for us. Ralph's dead now, but before he died he took care of a lot of houses around here. I believe he had yours boarded up."
"Yes, when I drove by it was boarded up. It looks a mess, though. I'm not sure I'm up to cleaning it up."
"There are companies that are buying up all the abandoned houses around here, fixing them up, and reselling. There are a lot of folks moving into the new government offices and want to buy around here. Prices are really up. You should have no trouble selling it. But you'll need to move fast, before Christmas. At that time, powerful elected and appointed officials like to surprise their families back home with a gift house in the DC area. There are a lot of them moving in around here."
"But Momma is so worried because we didn't pay the mortgage after we left. We heard that there was compensation from FEMA but we didn't know how to apply for it in Ohio. I'm not even sure if we still own it." She got that look, that anticipation of crying, again.
Gayle gave her a hug. "Don't worry. Harriet told me that the county commissioner had declared that all Reston County properties that were vacated during the evacuation would be returned to their rightful owners and their heirs for up to a period of 10 years after the blast. There were many opportunists who tried to take advantage of the situation, until President Knox declared that no evacuee shall suffer the loss of their land or home because of the blast.... Listen, do you hear that? Silence. We'd better check on those guys."
Both mothers jumped up from the couch and rushed down the hall. Gayle stopped at the open doorway to Jonathan's room, put her finger to her lips, and leaned against the doorframe, while Shauna moved in and put her arm around Gayle like they were old friends. Both Jonathan and Jason were sprawled out on Jonathan's bed, fast asleep. They were touching each other in a way that made both mothers smile and look at one another. As they tiptoed back to the living room, Gayle whispered, "Guess they wore themselves out having so much fun."
"They sure did. That long ride this morning helped Jason out a bit."
"Say, ever since I got back here I've been stuck in the same rut, the same routine. It's no use you going out and trying to find a motel or hotel to stay in while you're here. They're all filled up with government employees anyway. Why don't you and Jason stay here?"
"We wouldn't be putting you out?"
"No... No way. Except for Harriet next-door it's been kind of lonely around here. Come on, let's go get your things in. Have you had lunch?" Gayle got up and walked towards the front door. Shauna followed.
"No, I drove right here off the freeway. Really wanted to see what the place looked like." They had reached Shauna's car so she got out her key and opened the trunk. They both loaded their arms with suitcases and bags and started back in.
"Good. As soon as the boys wake up we'll have lunch and then go over to your house and see how it is. Okay?"
They were chatting like old friends by the time they got all the bags unpacked and neatly put away in Jason's room. Shauna kept choking up, and Gayle kept hugging her and trying to cheer her up. Gayle had not yet figured out the significance of that room to Shauna. When they finished, Gayle suggested, "Let's go over to Harriet’s house and see if she has a key for those padlocks that Ralph put on. I'll invite her to lunch, too. So she can tell us what she knows about your house."
They checked on the boys and they were still fast asleep, so they carefully let themselves out the back door and walked over to Helen's house. Harriet came to the door in a housecoat. It was obvious from the look of the kitchen, she hadn't taken care of it for several days. "Please excuse the mess," she said. She didn't look well. "And who is this, Gayle? A friend from school?"
"Helen, this is Shauna Wilson. You remember don't you? She used to live in that house around the corner with her mother that Ralph boarded-up. She's come to visit from Ohio with her son, Jason."
"Jason. Yes I remember Jason. Fine young fellow. Where is Jason? Where is your brother?" It was obvious that Harriet was having trouble with her memory and keeping up the house. Gayle felt bad for not checking in on her more often.
"If it's okay with you, we'll just clean up here in the kitchen while you go get something on so you can come with us over to my house for lunch. Okay?"
"Okay." Harriet obediently shuffled off to her bedroom while Gayle filled the sink with hot water and dishwashing soap and Shauna gathered the dishes and started scraping off uneaten food into the garbage. It took them a half-hour, but when Shauna took out the garbage the kitchen was in fairly good order. Harriet had not returned, so they went to her bedroom, found it in disarray and Harriet standing there looking at some clothes on her bed, still not dressed. She was crying. While they were helping her into her clothes she said through that her tears, "I miss that old goat. I miss him every day. Why did he have to go and die that way and leave me here, all alone?"
"I don't know, Helen. My Jonathan died before he ever saw his son. My parents didn't have a chance in the blast. Life isn't fair. Come on. Let's go over to my house and have some lunch." Once again, Harriet obediently complied and they went out through the kitchen over to Gayle’s house. Even before they got to the back door, they could hear the frantic screams of panic inside.
Gayle got to the screen door first and flung it open. Shauna pushed the kitchen door in and they found two bawling young men, worried that they had been abandoned by their mothers. Gayle reached Jonathan first, picked him up, and rocked him back and forth in her arms. "Jonathan! You are getting too big and too heavy for this. Big boys don't cry! What would your Uncle Jason think? He's out there protecting us from the bad guys, and you're here crying like a little baby!"
"Yes Mommy. I won't cry no more. I'm a big boy now. Let me down!" He wiggled enough to slide out of her arms and back to the floor. He turned, and yelled, "Come, Jason!" And they both ran back into his room laughing and squealing. Shauna and Gayle turned toward each other and smiled. Funny how kids' emotions can change in the wink of an eye.
In five minutes they were all sitting around the kitchen table eating sandwiches, talking and laughing. After they'd finished eating, Gayle said, "Harriet, if you don't mind watching the kids and give us the key to the padlock, Shauna and I will go over to her house this afternoon and see how it is. Okay?"
"That's wonderful. I think I've got something over at the house that the boys would really enjoy." All the excitement had cheered Harriet up considerably.
They washed the ice cream from the boys' hands and faces, and walked over to Harriet’s house. Harriet went to a closet and found a box of antique children's books and showed them to the boys. They eagerly grabbed them up, curled up on the living room carpet, and began to look at the pictures and read. Harriet gave Shauna the key with a tag on it marked "the Wilson house". Both girls gave Harriet a hug and they left the house, crossed the street and walked through the woods, over the hill, to Shauna's house.
There was a thick carpet of golden leaves on the ground and a few left in the trees. No evidence of dust from the blast remained. Shauna felt both wonderful walking here again like she did as a child and fearful of what she would find when she arrived. The going was rougher than both girls remembered. The fall leaves covered snags and made the landscape softer than it really was, quite overgrown. Skirting several patches of briars and fallen trees, they eventually arrived at the back of the Wilson house. It was obvious before they got there is something was awry. Although the house was boarded up and the rear door was padlocked, a board had been ripped off a window and there was a gaping hole where the glass had been broken. "We should have brought a gun." Gayle whispered as they approached the boarded over back door.
Shauna was shaking so bad she couldn't open the padlock and Gayle had to do it for her. Ralph had put hinges on the plywood, making it easier to pull it back and open the screen door. They had no key for the back door, but Ralph had broken a small window in the door so they could reach through and release the dead bolt from inside. What they found was shocking. The place had been ransacked! "Oh, my God! Oh, my God!" Shauna shrieked. All the cabinets and doors in the house and all of the contents had been strewn throughout the house. They stumbled through the debris and when they arrived at Shauna's room it didn’t look as bad as the others, but she still broke down and started crying when she saw the dirty bed and sheets. Gayle comforted her all she could, but it was just too much. Shaking with grief, Gayle led her back to the kitchen.
"Someone's been living here." Gayle said. See those wine bottles on the counter? They have no dust on them. There's no dust on the counter either. Let me check the refrigerator." She opened it. "See, there's bread, some KFC chicken, and peanut butter. Someone's living here. Come on, let's go." She led Shauna out the back door, closed the dead bolt through the hole, pulled the plywood over the door, put the hasp in place and padlocked it. There was a clear path around the house to the front. Gayle placed a dead branch that had fallen from a tree across the path about knee-high. "Just for insurance." She said, and they took the path to the street, avoiding the overgrown front yard and the briars out back.
Shauna had calmed down and stopped crying before they got back to Helen's house. Gayle reassured her that in spite of the condition of the house, there were many builders who would renovate it and make it available for sale at a high price. Once there, Harriet heated some tea and they all sat down to think about what they were going to do.
"Probably just some homeless person. I do remember Ralph telling me that the house had been broken into. That's why he boarded it up to protect it from further damage. There still are a lot of homeless people around who come to the door asking for handouts. That's why I keep Ralph's shot gun handy." Harriet offered her two cents about Shauna's situation.
"That's a good idea. Have you got any guns around the house, Helen?"
"I sure do. Ralph took what guns were left at your house and from several houses around here. It wasn't stealing. He just didn't want them to fall into the wrong hands. When you came back, Gayle, I forgot that he had locked them away. You want to see them?"
"I sure do. Let's go see them." Harriet took a key from the pantry and they went to a closet with a heavy lock on it. When she opened it, there were several rifles and shot guns propped up against one corner and some pistols on the shelf. The boys were really curious, poking their heads from behind their mothers' legs. Gayle had to shoo them away and tell them to go back to their books in the other room. She recognized some of the guns as being her father's.
"What's your pleasure, Shauna? I'm going to take that 357 revolver that my father used to show us how to shoot in the mountains. Do you want to try Dad's 12 gauge shotgun?"
"I guess. I ain't never shot a gun before."
"Well, if things go the way I think, it will be just for effect. Let's stop whoever it is that's been camping out in your house. Okay? Helen, have you got any bullets for these? It's getting late. And have you got a flashlight? Let's get back over to your Mother’s house before dark." It was obvious to Shauna that Gayle had a plan. Whatever it was that Gayle planned, she was going along with it.
It was about 4:30 p.m. before they started back. Harriet had agreed to keep the kids for the night. The two of them, loaded down with bedrolls, flashlights, some water and sandwiches, and the pistol and shotgun, and Gayle's and Shauna’s cell phones set to ring 911. In five minutes, they were coming up the trail from the street to the house with Gayle in the lead. "Good." She said, as she carefully removed the branch from the trail. "No one's come back to the house yet. I learned this trick in the mountains when I used to play Indians with Jason. We'll put it back in the morning if no one comes tonight."
In the back, they carefully slipped everything through the hole in the broken window and then crawled in after. They positioned themselves on Shauna's bed and lounge, sipping on the water they brought and whispering. Gayle showed Shauna how to release the safety on the shotgun. "Please don't shoot unless you absolutely have to. We don't want murder on our hands. Okay?" Shauna nodded in agreement, tried the safety and couple of times as she aimed the gun at the wall. With the safety back on Shauna left the gun alongside of her while she tasted a sandwich. "And another thing. Position everything carefully. After dark I won’t turn on the flashlight unless absolutely necessary. Okay?"
They didn't have to wait long, light in the room was growing very dim when Shauna blurted out, "Gayle, I'm really getting itchy! Something in this room is bothering me."
Gayle switched on the flashlight for a moment and began slapping her legs. "It's fleas. The whole room is infested with fleas. We'll just have to bear their bites as long as we can. Too late to go get some bug spray now. Damn!" She turned the flashlight back off and they continued whispering to each other about the irritation of the fleas. Very soon it got unbearable for both of them. They decided to leave.
They were just about to leave when they heard something in the hall. Both grabbed their guns. They heard a low growl and the scratching of a dog’s paws as it rushed for the door of their room. Shauna didn't wait. She pulled the trigger and the recoil from the shotgun nearly knocked her off the bed. There was a loud yipping sound as the dog retreated. Gayle didn't know if he was hit or not.
"Rex... Rex... Rex... where are you Rex? Are you all right? Come here boy! Don't shoot! Don't shoot! It's just me and my dog, Rex."
Gayle was in the doorway, the 357 in one hand and the flashlight in the other, aiming both at the frightened girl dragging her big bag who had just come through the window. Gayle felt Shauna directly behind her, backing her up. She could hear the dog whimpering in the bathroom, afraid to come out. "Just what are you doing here!" She yelled at the girl.
"I might... I... live here. I mean... I've been staying here since early summer when they tore down my mother's house and I couldn’t stay there anymore. I knew the Wilsons were gone so I thought I could stay here."
"Becky... Becky... is that you—Becky? What are you doing in my house?" Shauna thought she recognized the girl under the heavy coat and kerchief.
"Shauna. Is that you? Oh my God! You've come home! You've come home!" Her rough sounding demeanor changed and she started to cry. Shauna rushed to her, and, in spite of her stench, was hugging and kissing her dirty face. Rex came out from the bathroom, his head down and his tail wagging slightly, whimpering and whining softly. Although Shauna had put a nice shot pattern high up on the wall, she had hurt only the Rex’s ears and his pride. He let Gayle pet him like he had many strangers, even in the night.
"Come on. Shauna. Bring your friend and let's go home. Harriet and the boys will be worried about us."
When they got back to Harriet’s house, they gave her the stuff they had borrowed, and took Becky to Gayle's house so that she could have a hot shower. The boys enjoyed washing the German Shepherd Rex on the back patio with Gayle to get rid of his fleas. Rex clearly enjoyed it, too. By the time they got back in the house, Shauna had made a pot of coffee and heated up some food for Becky. They threw her clothes in the trash out back after removing what valuables they could find in her pockets. She was a bit smaller than Gayle, but Gayle gave her a pair of her panties, a bra, jeans, a wool sweater, some socks, and running shoes to wear. She came out of the shower, a new girl.
Rex fell asleep under the table after lapping up some milk and eating some hamburger that Gayle had heated to rare in the microwave. Over hot coffee and thawed-out pizza, Becky warmed up and started talking. "That day when Jason dropped me off, my Mom never came home. The power was out and I had no news, so I just stayed there and waited. And waited. And waited. When they came through and told all of us to evacuate, I couldn't, because Mom wasn’t home yet and even though I couldn't drive, Mom had the car."
Becky tried to smile through her bad teeth but her deep sadness overtook her and tears appeared in her eyes as she continued. "I was afraid of the dust. I knew it was radioactive, so I washed all that I had on me off when I got home. And I didn't go out for fear of getting more on me for many days until it was all washed away. By that time, the water stopped running and there was no food. Finally, I just had to leave the house. I started going to friends’ houses, like Karen and Kris’s, but no one was home. Eventually, I broke into a couple of houses to get something to eat and drink. When the Sheriff’s Deputy and the National Guard came by, I hid. I knew my mother was dead and I didn't want to go with them wherever it was they would take me. I just wanted to stay home and take care of our things, Mom’s and mine.
"I found Rex tied up behind one of the neighbor's houses, starving. I washed the radioactive dust off him and nursed him back to health. He saved me from being raped when the bad men came to steal from the house. He's my friend and lover. He has kept me warm through many a cold night. I got a grocery cart and started to forage like the other homeless people, only I had a home. Well, at least until last spring when they came and tore Mom's house down when I was out looking for food (she started to cry). I came here, and even though your house was in shambles, Shauna, I started to stay there. I hoped and prayed that you would come home. Now that you're here I'm so happy!" She burst out crying again and everyone hugged her. Except for her breath she smelled great in her skinny little body.
They all looked in on the boys. Although Jason and Jonathon had been very excited to see Becky and Rex, in the middle of Becky’s story they had wandered off to bed. Gayle put Becky in her parents’ room. As she returned to her room, Gayle thought, It's been quite a day... quite a day.