"Emily Cricket Hastings!" Sister Marie shouted in lieu of God Almighty as the bullets whistled by and the porpoising ’67 sky blue Barracuda left the road at high speed.
Cricket made a hard right turn and sped the Plymouth convertible through a sunny field of tall grass, aiming for the woods alongside a white farmhouse.
"Hold on," Cricket yelled, her tangled, long dark hair in motion.
Inside the forest the woods quickly grew dense. She braked hard behind a row of oaks lining a large meadow.
Out of the car Cricket called for her rifle from Uncle Tommy, who kept one hand on Diesel, the family’s seven-year-old chocolate lab lying on the floor, head down.
"Stay low," she advised when a bullet snapped off a low branch that landed in front of the Barracuda. Sister Marie peered over the door frame with her short barrel binoculars.
Cricket zeroed in the 30-ought-06 using the hood for stability. The powerful scope delivered the shooter to the other side of the dinner table even though he stood roughly 500 feet away next to a massive dead tree. Rifle lowered, he tilted his head toward the woods, listening. Cricket drew a breath remembering her dad’s wisdom: a trembling heart not trembling hands was the cue you were ready to fire.
She paused, spotting a hunched-over figure close-by, directing the shooter. Through shadow and foliage and summer haze the leader looked massive, energetic, disciplined. Change of plans: she drew a bead on the leader and fired. In jeans and a pink T-shirt, her nearly six-foot supermodel frame absorbed the recoil energy well as the man’s arms shot over his head like a sports fan starting the wave. He fell backwards and the woods swallowed him.
Sister Marie gasped and began praying.
A few moments of deep quiet clicked by. The shooter had disappeared–run-off, taken cover?
He suddenly emerged bare chested in front of the dead tree, waving a red shirt, gun at his side. Cricket took aim and fired and the man danced backwards and collapsed.
"He was surrendering!" Sister Marie covered her mouth, letting the binoculars dangle from her neck strap.
"Savages don’t surrender, Sister. They buy time. Next you’ll be reminding me to love my enemy?"
"Always," Sister Marie said quietly, her hands still pressed to her lips, eyeing the field.
"Actually, in his current state I happen to love him very much."
Sweat dampened the ends of Sister Marie’s curly, grey streaked hair and most of the front of her short-sleeve blouse. Her voice cracked. "This is not your best moment, Cricket. But I thank you for protecting us."
"Sister, they were trying to kill us. More than a half dozen shots by my count. I’m feeling a moment of supreme efficiency. Right and wrong. Good and evil. All dialed in. That has to be something God would appreciate."
Cricket circled the car for damage, admiring the Plymouth classic, a favorite of her mom and dad’s. "Lost a front headlight. But we’ll make the Ledges before dark."
The Hastings’ Plymouth Barracuda was the family’s only car to survive a geomagnetic storm in late April that fried everything electronic from singing birthday cards to jet aircraft across the Midwest. Not letting a crisis go to waste, the Iranians exploded a nuclear device high above Kansas a week later creating another electromagnetic pulse that further pulverized the digital age. The one-two EMP punch reduced most of North America to the 17th century. Cricket’s dad had borrowed the big tires from their SUV. The surviving Barracuda now had a serious rubber footprint and off road capabilities.
Great Uncle Tommy smiled: "Cricket, you would have been fair company on Omaha Beach." He was dressed in his Army veteran’s windbreaker and World War Two cap. He looked comfortable in the summer heat. "You took care of a couple of troublemakers in short order. Yep, that’s mighty fine marksmanship." He petted Diesel who, still on the floor, rested his head on the seat. As Cricket handed him back the rifle her dad flew overhead in his canary yellow J-3 Cub. Diesel scrambled to his feet for a better look and stepped all over Uncle Tommy who yelled and then laughed.
Sister Marie helped Uncle Tommy coax the large lab to settle down and Cricket joined in, running her hand along the dog’s well-muscled shoulder and back. Diesel barked at the familiar plane and its pilot. He was always excited to see Paul Hastings, but a sharper bark followed by a low whine said he was still jealous of the strange contraption that seemed to like his master almost as much as he did.
Cricket watched her dad circle the pasture just above the trees, waving from the open-door cockpit, finishing with a thumbs up as he flew over the two dead men below. She beamed skyward and knew her handsome father was smiling back.
The world was crumbling fast, yet Paul Hastings had maintained his authority as county sheriff, dressing in uniform on most days, checking in on neighbors who still kept to their homes. Recently, he had called for a survival summit at a well-known state park called the Ledges.
"That man in the field is moving," Sister Marie cried out, binoculars still raised. "He’s alive!"
Cricket grabbed the 30-ought-06 and peered through the scope. "You’re right, Sister." The man’s arm was extended, as if expecting someone above to lend a hand.
"Good Lord, you’re not going to shoot him again?" Sister Marie said.
"Not at the moment." She passed the rifle to her uncle.
"We need to help him."
"And get ambushed?"
Cricket pointed and Uncle Tommy handed her the .12 gauge pistol grip shotgun to accompany the nine millimeter Glock strapped to her hip. Sister Marie shook her head at the flat black, sawed-off shotgun.
"Added protection," Cricket stated. "And if he’s still alive when we get there, I expect him to answer my questions."
"And help the man!"
"Sure, very carefully." She turned to her great uncle. "Fire two rounds if you see something we can’t. Diesel, you got the front. Give Uncle Tommy some room." She tapped the front seat and the big lab took his place.
Uncle Tommy patted the .38 revolver on his hip and gave a short salute.
The sun-yellow Cub circled overhead and took its place in the finch family, gracefully turning and climbing in blue sky with peaceful fat clouds well above its flightpath. When father and daughter again made eye contact, Cricket held the shotgun over her head to signal a brief delay before continuing.
To Sister Marie, she said, "Let’s keep to the edge of the woods until were opposite the shooter. Less time in the open the better. Dad will keep scouting for us."
Sister grabbed a canteen off the car’s floor and from the glove compartment some paper napkins that hid another holstered automatic.
Cricket walked ahead of Sister Marie who glassed the surroundings with her bird watching binoculars every few steps. Both watched for trouble from either man, or worse, from deeper inside the forest. Cricket would have liked her father at her side and knew the field offered a good landing spot for the slow-moving J-3 Cub. But she needed him airborne. If she had to, she was to wave both hands over her head and he’d land.
Several feet from the dead tree Cricket came upon a young black man, near her age. Although the man’s rifle lay out of reach, she expected him to be hiding another weapon. Closer, she saw that both hands were bloody and empty. Cricket had shot plenty of deer and had shot the man the same way, aiming for the heart. Sister knelt next to him and spoke and the man never responded. He had one leg bent awkwardly out to the right and was breathing roughly. She had nailed at least one lung and missed the heart. He was drowning in his own blood.
The man never took a sip from Sister’s canteen, so she used the water to gently wash his face and hands.
Cricket saw his ‘boss’ a few feet inside the first row of trees behind a ragged group of bushes and slowly approached him. Her own success in bringing down the attackers no longer brightened her. She felt acid rising from her stomach.
Fitful sprays of blood across leaves and a small bush said that he had flailed along the ground before ending in a large ball, his back arched, forehead against the ground, frozen eternally, searching in the shadows for something he never had in this life. Beneath him the ground was wet with more blood.
Walking back into the sun she stared straight ahead as Sister Marie held the dying man’s hand and prayed. She cried through a Hail Mary and was answered by a sharp rise in the chorus of insects. The man’s struggle was finally over.
The J-3 Cub came winging in a few feet above the grass, aiming for the two women before starting a climbing right turn to the north. It was time to go. They again skirted the woods, arms around each other.
"I didn’t expect them to suffer," Cricket said.
A full head shorter than Cricket, Sister Marie supported the beautiful young woman who now shook uncontrollably. Before reaching the road Cricket stumbled away from Sister and caught the low branch of a tree to steady herself. Hanging onto the branch she threw up. Looking down at her own mess, she said, "I was defending us, Sister, you know that."
"I know. But we suffer when we kill. Even if it’s justified."
"Didn’t do it out of hate. But I’d do it again. They’re not going to slaughter us."
"Emily Cricket Hastings," Sister announced lawyer-like, bringing her case to a higher power. She placed a hand on Cricket’s damp neck and handed her the last few napkins she had brought for the wounded man and then looked up through the trees: "Tough, stubborn, short tempered, and so darn real" began her opening statement. Sister leaned close: "I love you, Cricket. I’m always praying for you."
"You prayed for mom and that didn’t work out so well. Or maybe just lousy timing on God’s part–taking her away when I was only a kid."
Sister Marie had been her mom’s high school nursing instructor and, later, a close friend, enjoying years of friendship that continued now with Cricket and her dad.
"Prayer doesn’t make everyone healthy again or ensure we’ll live to a hundred and twenty," Sister said. "We pray for strength, for understanding when life is at its bleakest. I pray for you to have strength. And your father. I prayed with your mom so she would have the strength to face what was coming."
No more was said. The two women walked slowly. A cardinal flew past and a hawk cried above the meadow.
Rounding the farm house, Cricket was startled by two people leaning over the side of the Barracuda, talking and laughing with Uncle Tommy. Diesel was out of the car recording every possible smell for future use. She tightened her grip on the shotgun and made sure the safety was off.
Twenty-somethings: a woman in a white sun dress, short blonde hair and skin so white that direct sunlight would have damaged her instantly, and a young man of medium height, slender, with long black hair that fell across his forehead reaching his eyes.
Unbidden, Cricket thought: He doesn’t need to see anyway. He has her.
"What a sweet old man you’ve kidnapped," the young girl squealed. "All for me!"
Cricket said, "The Germans thought he was real sweet too when he and a bunch of GI’s stormed Omaha beach and started grinding the bastards back to their beer gardens on the Rhine."
Sister Marie looked heavenward for guidance and Uncle Tommy kept smiling, saying, "You would have made a damn good reporter back in the day, Cricket–writing all about what those boys accomplished."
"You were one of those boys, Uncle Tommy."
The woman clapped at the history lesson or maybe all the fun everyone seemed to be having. Her friend grinned at the ground, not looking anyone in the eye.
"What are your names?" Sister Marie politely asked.
"Dick and Jane!" the young woman exploded in sheets of laughter. "And you’re Cricket," she said in utter amazement, dropping the funny-bone moment like she had been introduced to a celebrity.
Cricket noticed that the woman’s eyes were dark brown, a startling contrast to her golden hair and delicate white skin. "So, Dick and Jane, where are you headed?"
"With you, of course," Jane said. "Uncle Tommy invited us to the big party."
"Before the invitation?
"See the world!"
"That’s why I joined the Army," Uncle Tommy added. "You see, Cricket, the good things in life never change. These two young people have adventure written all over them."
"You do know our world is a bit messed up right now." Cricket eyed the strangers and pulled the car keys from her jean’s pocket, relieved she hadn’t left them in the ignition. The sound of keys made Dick raise his head. Jane simply stared. A chill pinged off Cricket’s warm skin.
The Cub buzzed them.
"We need to get moving," Sister Marie said. "Tom Hastings reads the Declaration of Independence every Fourth of July."
"He could have read it in his armchair." Dick finally spoke up, looking again at the ground.
"I’m forgetting my manners. I’m Sister Marie, with the Sisters of Charity." She opened the car door. "Many people in town look forward to Tom’s reading of that wonderful document." She extended her hand and both newcomers pumped it lightly. Cricket didn’t offer hers.
"Maybe Uncle Tommy could find some new reading material," Jane said quietly.
The old veteran removed his cap like he was taking a solemn oath. "I’ve thought about that…but the Declaration is a beaut. Now, young lady, I have considered referencing a few lines from other great men–Lincoln, Hamilton, Washington….and of course, more from Jefferson."
Jane frowned.
Cricket watched her: A storm in the making? Boyfriend, a lame storm chaser? She quickly concluded: They’re both probably high.
Diesel pushed his snout against the back of Jane’s dress and she squealed at the attention and took to rubbing behind his ear, which happened to be Diesel’s favorite spot for a rubdown.
"Well, you’ve got Uncle Tommy and Diesel on your side," Cricket said. "You’re welcome to ride along and meet a bunch of great people that are looking out for each other. We’re maybe a half hour from our destination."
Sister Marie and Cricket climbed in front and brought along the rifle and shotgun. In back, Dick and Jane squeezed in with the dog and Uncle Tommy.
Cricket turned to their guests before starting the car.
"Did you hear all the gunfire just a bit ago?"
"We heard a little popping but that’s common these days," Dick said, examining his nails.
Cricket glanced at the field across the road where two men lay dead.
"How far away were you?"
"Right here, in the farmhouse."
"Your place?" Cricket said.
"No. But we found it nice and left it nice."
"We were just waking up," Jane said. "It was all a dream, like fireworks, like the fourth of July!" She smiled like she would start bouncing off the walls, but instead channeled her energy into those big brown eyes.
Again Cricket’s dad flew overhead rocking his wings. When she was only five he took her up for her first lesson. Years later, neither of them were sure whether she had fired her .22 rifle first or flew the Cub, but both moments had been imprinted with her dad’s divine common sense and love of life. She looked up at the retreating plane with a full heart.
With the sun on her face she started down the two lane road. Dad was off to her left, close to the tree tops, when the unmistakable roar of jet fighters ruptured the summer air. The fighters shot overhead, less than a mile to the east, maybe a thousand feet above her father, paralleling his route.
Uncle Tommy was clapping; Diesel was barking. Sister Marie shouted–"Weren’t all the electronics fried?"
"Older planes," Uncle Tommy yelled from the back seat. "I bet from Wright Patt. Boy, that’s something. They got those old jets flying again."
"Looked like a Phantom … not sure about the other one," Cricket said.
In the rearview mirror she noticed Dick and Jane’s lack of enthusiasm.
"Don’t worry, they’re not going to drop anything on our heads," Cricket said, turning to be heard. She slowed down. She was already catching her dad who had a top speed of sixty-five miles per hour.
"Our defenses are coming back," Uncle Tommy belted out, kissing the top of Diesel’s head. The dog shared both Uncle Tommy and Jane’s lap.
Cricket added, "Dad expected those planes to help take the cities back."
The little communication they had in the past month from people moving about Ohio was that street gangs, Jihadists, common criminals, even bands of anarchists were having a grand ole time taking over large swaths of major cities and introducing their versions of ‘heaven on earth.’
The jets turned to the west. Soon, several large explosions reached the passengers in the Barracuda.
"What the hell is happening?" Dick cried out from the back seat. "Aren’t we ever gonna be safe from these war mongers?"
"I think they’re called the good guys," Cricket announced. A moment later the rapid pop-pop-pop of small arms fire was heard just beyond the trees off their left.
"I trust if those planes are firing there’s a serious threat developing," Sister Marie said with authority.
Cricket reached for Sister’s hand, scanning the farmland and pockets of woods for more trouble. She prayed that the world of Fourth of July and families enjoying picnic food and listening to great old fellas like Uncle Tommy would endure. As a kid she sat atop her dad’s shoulders for the morning parade and ended the day with her parents on a blanket watching the fireworks. Unbelievable. Today’s Independence Day–real fireworks!–and I’m fighting to stay alive and keep everyone I love alive.
Paul Hastings stayed on course. He expected his daughter to do the same. He had sent runners to contact other police departments in nearby counties for representatives to meet at the Ledges on the Fourth. They needed to decide on the best town for their survival, especially with winter only four months away and food becoming scarce. The Ledges with its sandstone rock formations and abundant streams and waterfalls was centrally located in Northeastern Ohio and naturally fortified.
Smoke rose in the western sky. The jet’s thunder made Cricket believe that they surely would endure until her stomach flipped violently. Her dad suddenly dove the Cub, disappearing behind the trees. An emergency landing? The rise of heavy caliber gunfire made her turn off the road and aim for a high point in the adjoining meadow. The Cub returned at full throttle above the treetops tracking west, away from Cricket and company. Paul Hastings was being chased by two old pickup trucks with .50 caliber machine guns mounted in their beds.
Cricket jumped from the car and went to grab the 30-ought-06 when she found Uncle Tommy’s revolver pointed at her.
Jane said, "Keys please. We’ll keep the guns, too, sweetie."
She got out of the car and walked right up to Cricket until her dress brushed Cricket’s jeans–"Love the car." She grabbed the keys and tossed them to Dick and then jerked the automatic from its holster. "The Glock’s very anti-Feng Shui–ruins that cute body of yours."
Those damn big brown eyes had been screaming crazy all along.
The next explosion made Cricket wince and she looked to see her father’s J-3 Cub on fire and falling, maybe a mile off. She fell to her knees, her breath torn away. The trucks converged on the site and more gunfire. With a gun in each hand, Jane let out a war whoop of victory and danced in a circle around Cricket before handing the revolver to Dick.
"Wow, you see that baby drop from the sky." Dick was smiling but his voice shook. He gripped the gun tightly, waving it back and forth. Would he shut his eyes when he pulled the trigger? "Inspiring aerobatics. I’d call it…the grand finale. Makes me want to pop this war hero…right here … uh, right now. But he’s got one foot in the grave anyway."
"You’ll have my foot up your ass soon enough," Uncle Tommy declared.
Dick and Jane laughed and Diesel growled as they both stepped further away from the vehicle. Cricket sat on the backs of her legs, head down.
"Your world is finished, old man," Dick taunted. "It’s a new day. The people are taking back the streets, taking back their lives from The Man!"
Sister Marie said, "We’re all God’s people, my dear." She bent down to comfort Cricket who looked up and stared at the smoke and fire in the distance.
"Religion has disappeared from the big cities." Jane sang off key: "Pittsburgh and Cleveland–all gone. Poof! Amazing how quickly the biggest cathedrals fell into our hands."
Dick said, "Your religion died with barely a whimper. The people have finally triumphed."
Uncle Tommy just crinkled his nose and shook his head no.
Jane shrugged. "We were offering heaven on earth, but the sale’s over. Nothing can touch us now. We’ll never be hurt by a few cowboys dropping bombs."
"Every oppressed person on earth has known for years what a bully this country is," Dick complained.
"Hey, maybe we should have some fun with these clowns," Jane said, like she was boarding the Demon Drop for the tenth time and planned to raise her arms right before the epic plunge into a dark abyss. Her grip on the gun relaxed; her eyes flamed seeking new thrills.
A line of sweat popped straight down Cricket’s back and she sprang from the ground and tackled the blonde. Dick was screaming for everyone to stay put when the two women wrestled into the tall grass. Both Sister and Uncle Tommy called out, maybe some instructions, but Cricket went for the gun and missed all the advice. She kneed her opponent in the side and was punched and scratched in return.
Both had their hand on the gun and Jane was trying to bite Cricket who bear hugged her from behind. Dick was looking for a clean shot when Cricket forced her finger over Jane’s and found the trigger. A few more rolls and Cricket maneuvered into position and fired.
Wide on her first shot, the second grazed Dick’s shoulder and he dropped the gun. The third caught him square in the chest. She kept firing. Dick sucked in his final rebel yell, wanting to breathe more than shout some last cliche about ‘the people.’ He collapsed quickly as though life had always been a nervous visitor who’s finally relieved to move on. Cricket ripped the gun away from Jane and climbed atop her, shoving the muzzle in the blonde’s face.
"You’re dead, bitch."
"No, actually, your daddy’s dead."
"Cricket!" Sister Marie cried out. "She’s sick. You can’t just kill her!"
Uncle Tommy said nothing.
Jane wiped the blood from her mouth and glanced at her accomplice on the ground. "Never cared for little Dicky here, but you did take out my man in the woods. For that you’ll die."
Shaking, her throat closing off, Cricket slapped her with her free hand and stood up. She kept the gun pointed on Jane as she got to her feet and started brushing off her grass-stained dress.
Diesel ran toward the downed aircraft and Cricket called to him but he never slowed.
"I’m not going to kill her." Cricket said, glancing at Sister Marie long enough to see that her friend had taken the automatic from the glove compartment and now wore it at her side. Sister spotted the keys and picked them up.
They all heard the trucks racing madly just beyond the meadow and plenty of shooting. Jane spun around and ran off waving her arms, laughing, cheering for her team. Her dress and skin glowed in the sun. Cricket kept the gun on her for a few moments longer and then lowered it.
"Let’s go deeper into the woods and make our stand," she said through hot tears, again seeing her dad falling through space on fire. "We’ll head to the Ledges on foot, once it’s safe."
With the women on either side of Uncle Tommy, they were nearly inside the forest when the two trucks burst onto the meadow and picked up Jane. Just as they gunned their engines, aiming for the trio, a P-51 Mustang shot over the trees and raked the pair of trucks with its own .50 caliber machine guns. The fastest American fighter from World War Two pulled up and roared toward the horizon followed by another P-51 that sent several attackers airborne and blasted their trucks into flames. Jane became a somersaulting mess in a bloody dress as the second plane took her apart.
Sister Marie had been clutching Cricket’s arm and now both women embraced, sharing waves of sadness and relief.
Uncle Tommy said, "Let’s head back to the car, Cricket. I think we’ll make it just fine to the Ledges. It’s what your dad would want. I’ll make sure a few good men go out and bring back your father before nightfall. I promise."
Cricket nodded her thanks and struggled to walk, thinking of the years she would face alone. "All you have to do is wave both arms over your head and I’ll land," her dad had told her. Unbearable pain clouded everything–Uncle Tommy, Sister Marie, sun and sky. Only a dog barking pierced her senses with any clarity.
Giving wide berth to the carnage of bodies and smoking vehicles came Diesel. He looked strong. Cricket wouldn’t say that he looked happy, but he ran with great purpose. A supreme moment of efficiency and love had returned.
*
Check out the next Independence Day contest honorable mention, Day of Honor by Matthew Bowman!
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