James A. Hall
Queens, New York
May 14, 2012
When Valora stepped from the plane’s tubular loading bridge, she eyed a unit of commandos up at the far end. Passengers up ahead were holding their mouths in horror. The soldiers cautioned her not to look, but it only fueled her curiosity. As she passed, she saw a sprawled body draped in a white sheet, a circle of blood widening.
Rapidly she made her way through terminal B, pass the passenger checkpoint and into the nearly impenetrable crowd.
Her roller bag acted like an anchor dragging across the ocean floor and slowing her course through the sea of bodies. Bracing herself, she moved through the human mass like a tiny icebreaker. At 5’5”, she couldn’t see beyond the manacle of compressed frames. If she was going to find a way through, she needed to climb to higher ground.
Valora had flowered from an awkward gangly girl into a beautiful young woman. Her eyes the color of a lazy autumn afternoon, her skin caramel brown, and her smile pure sunshine, her demure facade contrasted sharply with her fiery spirit and passion for life.
She was nineteen, but appeared even younger. Her petite but sturdy frame was clad in faded jeans, a white tee shirt, and a sage-colored Air Force jacket. A white gold necklace adorned her slender neck.
She tried to screen out the disconcerting chatter and the cries of unfed babies. The loud voice overhead made no mention of shuttle buses or transports into the city. Valora slipped her cell from her pocket, flipped the lid back with a quick motion of her hand, checked for a dial tone, and then shoved it back into her jean pocket.
Following the crowd, she made her way to the front entrance. As she stepped through the glass doors of the central terminal building, she was greeted by a blast of hot air. “From the frying pan into the fire,” she thought. Eyeing the chaos out front, her prospects for getting into the city vanished like the cool air she’d left behind. Seeing a red cap baggage handler standing with his back to her, she tapped his shoulder. He didn’t respond, his eyes were fixed on something far off. She gently clutched his arm. He spun sharply, his eyes piercing and his eyebrows kneaded in irritation.
“What is it?” snapped the hulking figure.
“I just flew in from the West Coast and I’m trying to reach Manhattan.”
“You were lucky to make it this far. These poor souls aren’t going anywhere. The airport is about to announce a complete shutdown, then all hell is gonna break loose.” Then he abruptly turned away. A second tap caused the large man’s face to knot and his eyes to roll.
“Maybe I haven’t made myself clear,” Valora stated. “I have to get into Manhattan! Now, the sooner you help me, the sooner I’m out of your hair.”
“Like everyone else, the best way that you can, young lady.” The man chuckled, his belly giggling like Jell-O during an earthquake. Valora’s face remained calm, yet resolute.
“Here’s the picture,” the man said, his tone grim. “The shuttle bus was suspended days ago, the rental companies have closed their doors, and the public bus is out of the question. Unless you got a car, there are only two ways in or out of the city. You can walk, but I wouldn’t advise that, things being the way they are, or you can grab a taxi.”
“However, let me warn you. The going rate for a taxi into the city is anywhere between five hundred and one thousand dollars, depending on where it is in the city you’re headed. But if you’re short on cash, some of them will take jewelry or other valuables. How much money do you have?” Valora left the question unanswered.
“Thanks for the help,” she said. Then she pivoted and weaved her way through the swarm of would-be travelers occupying the drop-off zone. One of the paramedics directed her to the far end of a long, curled loading strip. After a short walk, knapsack strapped on and toting her suitcase, Valora arrived at a stream of yellow cabs. “How much do you charge to the city?” she asked the first cabbie that she came to.
“Eight-hundred dollar,” he replied in a Middle Eastern accent, without bothering to look up from his overseas newspaper. Valora pressed on. The next driver was out of the cab before she could say a word, snatching her suitcase and flinging it into the trunk.
“How much?” Valora asked.
“Not much, only six-hundred dollars. The others are thieves. Mohammed’s rate, on the other hand, is most fair.”
“I’ve go about three hundred, which is more than fair,” Valora stated, standing firm. The cabby grumbled something in his native perhaps Pakistani or East Indian tongue. His face registered mild disappointment as he started to turn away. She delayed him by gently seizing his lower arm.
“I don’t have that kind of cash on me. But, I have a ring that’s very valuable.” The driver froze, and then quickly retraced his steps. He plucked the ring from her outstretched palm. Like a master jeweler, holding the ring up, he appraised the gold band, inlaid with tiny rubies and diamonds. After chomping down on the ring, a gluttonous smile flashed on his sand colored face.
An hour passed before the driver managed to pack his cab with human cargo. The cab’s back seat held three passengers with a fourth occupying the seat alongside the driver. Satisfied with his haul, the driver instructed his passengers to buckle up as he lurched into traffic, following a stream of vehicles exiting LaGuardia.
The eastbound lane of the Grand Central Parkway wasn’t half as bad as the traffic headed in the opposite direction. The exodus brought to mind rats deserting a sinking ship. “Everyone’s fleeing the Big Apple,” the driver said letting loose a high pitched and nasal snicker that was beginning to grate on her nerves, like fingernails sliding down a blackboard. Valora’s only consolation was the thought that he’d get his in the end. Greasy, foul mouthed, avaricious cads like him always do, she thought.
Valora tried to ignore the cabby’s smugness by gazing out the window at the traffic on the Long Island Expressway, which was thick as flies on a discarded candy apple in summer. They dredged along bumper to bumper for the better part of two hours. No one spoke until Mohammed broke the silence.
“You see, this is why Mohammed charges his rates. First, I must sit in this blasted traffic for hours, and then I must scrounge up petrol before fighting my way back to the airport.”
Valora couldn’t let it go. “Gee Mohammed, I wonder if the Taxi and Limousine Commission would be interested in learning of your troubles. Maybe I’ll give them a call.”
“Be my guest. Oh, I forgot. You haven’t heard—the city is shut down, owner gone mad.” The annoying snicker returned with all the appeal of a root canal. “But, thanks for the offer,” he replied. Up ahead was the mouth of the Midtown Tunnel. It was crawling with security. The National Guard and the NYPD were out in full force. A cold chill swept over Valora.
Points of entry into the city were being closely screened since the first truck bombs demolished parts of lower Wall Street, just shy of the Stock Exchange, and another exploded in front of the Empire State Building during morning rush hour.
A soldier, protected by a bulky black suit of body armor, usually reserved for the bomb squad, cautiously approached the cab. Valora smiled as the soldier reminded her of Timothy, the turtle, a gift from her father when she was five. The pimples on the soldier’s face and the peach fuzz carpeting his broad chin, avowed his tender age.
“What’s your business in the city?” the soldier asked coldly. Valora noticed for the first time a second soldier approaching from the passenger side, his lethal Heckler and Koch HK MP-5 submachine gun slung around his neck. The cabby stated his business coolly, thumbing back to his well-dressed fares.
“Let me see you driver’s license,” demanded the soldier. Mohammed had anticipated the soldier’s request, and quickly retrieved the document from the cab’s visor. After scanning the passengers, the soldier tossed the cabby his license, and waved them through.
The tunnel was their longest stretch of uninterrupted driving since leaving the airport. The exhaust fumes forced Valora to shorten her breaths. The dimness momentarily blinded her as the blaring car engines battered her eardrums. As they sped along, the speckle of light ahead gradually broadened into the greatest city in the world. At the sight of the city, she felt a surge of emotion. It was just as she remembered it except it seemed less hectic.
With rush hour approaching, 34th Street should have been bustling. The thinned herds of tight-faced New Yorkers continued to display the total indifference for which they were famous. However, there was a hint of despair in their eyes that wasn’t there before she left for Berkley College.
The cabby announced their arrival. “Alright, we’re here, everybody out.” Before Valora could shake the stiffness from her legs, the driver had unloaded the luggage from the trunk and dumped it onto the sidewalk. Without giving his fares a second look, the little man jumped back behind the wheel and threw the cab in gear.
“Wait a minute,” Valora cried out, appearing beside him. “I need to get uptown.”
Not bothering to roll down the window, the cabby barked out, “No way!”, wagging his finger in the air like it was a wiper blade, “that was not part of the bargain. I distinctly said midtown Manhattan. You agreed. A deal is a deal. Besides, I don’t go anywhere near those people. They are…” he stopped ranting, appearing to have remembered to whom he was speaking.
“Hold on, I think I know your price.” Valora slid an antique Egyptian cartouche from around her neck and dangled it in front of the greedy little man.
The cabby lowered the window, snatched the necklace, and looked it over. “Okay, but I’m only going as far as 110th Street and Fifth. I won’t venture into that place no matter the price. I have heard the stories.” As Central Park was also closed to traffic, the cabby took Park Avenue. In less than a half hour, he pulled the cab over to the curb and came to a screeching halt.
This time he didn’t bother to leave the cab as Valora had thrown her bags beside her in the back. Valora watched as the driver hung a sharp U-turn, leaving a black arc in the center of the street and a trail of white smoke as he raced off.
Out on the street, there wasn’t a cab or bus in sight so she started east, on foot, to Seventh Avenue. From there, it was about twenty blocks to the Strivers Row section of Harlem. Harlem, too, was deserted, but she hardly noticed. Her thoughts were elsewhere. The closer she got to home, the more she reflected on the last conversation she’d had with her mother. Her mother’s voice had sounded hurried and strained. The closer she got to home, the more she sensed that something was dreadfully wrong.
Rushing up the steps and into the lavish brownstone, Valora found her mother bent over the sink. Running water threatened to spill over on to the floor, as Olivia stood listless, staring into space. Not even her daughter’s sudden appearance could arouse her from her dazed state.
Valora, taken aback by her mother’s condition, let her pack drop and raced to her mother’s side. Finding her alone and under such circumstances could only mean one thing, Valora thought. Something had happened to her father. Throwing her arms around her mother, she whispered into her ear.
”Mother, what’s wrong? Where’s daddy?”
Olivia wailed mournfully and slumped toward the floor, appearing to give way to the heavy torment of her worst fears. Valora strained to get her to the kitchen table. With no better solution, Valora searched the cupboard for some of her mother’s special sassafras blend. After serving her mother a cup of herbal tea, Valora tried to draw from her mother the circumstance surrounding her father’s disappearance.
“If there was nothing wrong, he would have called. Well, wouldn’t he?” Olivia asked, cup trembling in her hands. “I’ve talked to everyone that we know, but no one has seen or heard from him. His office has been calling. They haven’t seen him in days.”
“He had been spending a lot of time at the Schomburg library, even more than usual. But, when I finally got through to the main desk, they said their doors have been closed for weeks. He has never lied to me, not ever,” she proclaimed proudly, yet with a sound of finality. “Something awful must have happened.” She continued to voice her fears as fresh tears rolled down her cheeks. Valora, tissue in hand, slid close enough to wipe away her mother’s tears.
Valora could not help but notice that her mother looked older than she remembered. The dark circles around her eyes were telltale signs that she had not slept in days.
“Daddy will be coming through the door any minute now, you’ll see,” Valora said, flashing a cardboard smile. Olivia continued to stare at her own fidgeting hands, muttering to herself.
Later that night, after getting her mother to close her eyes, Valora finally flopped down on the oversized sofa in the living room and sifted through the specifics of her father’s vanishing. She tossed and tumbled the loose details of her father’s sudden departure around in her head for hours. Still, nothing.
Valora craved a tall Chardonnay, but decided on a cup of tea instead. After a visit to the kitchen, Valora set off for the den in search of a trail that might lead her out of the thick, tangled jungle of dead ends. Then, suddenly, it came to her. If he’d left a clue in the house, it would be on his PC.
As she skimmed his document folders, one file entitled, “Letter to Valora” stood out from the others. That had to be it. Opening the file, her father’s heartfelt words spilled out across the electronic pages.
My Dearest Valora:
If you are reading this letter, it means that my worst suspicions and fears have been realized. From this day forth, you must face the fact that the nation, as it once was, has vanished like a mirage. Keep in mind in the coming months that everything that I did, I did for the two of you.
I tried to raise you to be a realist, but you were always a dreamer. Good thing too. The world will need dreamers and idealists more than ever. The world that you envisioned is now within your grasp. You must take the remnants of the old world and help to construct a better world on top of the ruins of the old.
From this moment on you must learn to trust your instincts. When the rioting starts, that will be the sign. Go into my closet and remove the back floorboards beneath the carpet. There you will find a safe. The combination is the same as your locker combination when you were a senior at Thurgood Marshall High. Inside you will find two keys. One will open the front door of the Schomburg. Once inside, head downstairs to the basement storage area. The second key will unlock your new home.
I want to believe that I have thought of everything. But I know that I haven’t. I wanted so much to be with the both of you, but I am called to another fate. If we are to survive what I think is coming, we are going to have to organize and start preparing for the aftermath. Take care of your mother for me. She is not as strong as you may think and she is going to need you now more than ever. Tell her nothing of this letter because it would only cause her more worry. It is better for her to think me dead.
You will always and forever live in my heart. Not a day will go by when I won’t curse providence for blessing me with the both of you and then taking you away. It seems the cruelest of all hoaxes. Yet, all my hopes and dreams will spring forth from the winter of my discontent and find rebirth in the warmth of the June sun. Fear not, my daughter, God is with you always, and He will be all the strength that you will ever need.
Until we are together again,
It seemed that her father had seen the dark, storm clouds gathering far off on the future horizon long before most. He’d been downloading articles from the electronic newspapers, as well as, military and survivalist data from a large cross section of sites. But, that wasn’t anything new. He researched countless topics. He had a passion for knowledge.
In addition, he was an avid chess player, honing his skill in the city’s parks. Through the game of chess, he taught Valora the fundamentals of military science and the art of war. He taught her to plan her moves far in advance and to use each piece in combination with the strengths and weaknesses of the other pieces.
Her father was fond of saying that the seeds of both victory and defeat lay in every move. Even a retreating move should compel one toward victory and not simply delay one’s defeat.
As she grew older, the two of them poured over the campaigns of Napoleon, Lee and Hannibal and discussed the tactical philosophies of Shaka, Sun Tzu, and Machiavelli, the way most families discussed box scores.
Hours seemed like minutes as she sat alone, allowing her father’s grave message to burrow in. Valora could feel her father’s pain in his every word. She wondered what could coax him away from his family.
Having foreknowledge of the coming fate of the world must have forced him to die a thousand deaths, she thought.
Valora took another sip of tea, sat the mug down, and curled up in the recliner. Fully relaxed, she stared at the family photos adorned throughout the den. The resonating warmth of the tea mixed with memories of happier times brought a smile to her face.
As her father had forewarned, the coming days saw the start of widespread bank failures sending out shock waves across the globe from ground zero, New York City.
Night after night she sat watching her country coming apart on MSNBC. Meanwhile, Olivia slipped deeper into darkness. Valor knew that whatever she was going to do, she had to do it soon. Their window of opportunity was quickly closing. She was certain that she could get them to the underground refuge, but what then? With no better plan, she decided to go for it.
The next morning Valora packed judiciously, deciding on two lightweight duffle bags. Then, she dressed her mother and waited inside the foyer for the half-light of early morning. At the first sign of a blue-gray sky through the smoked glass doors, she composed herself, grabbed Olivia by the hand and started out.
She feared the night and all of its veiled mysteries. But, the new day offered hope.
Pausing at the top of the steps, Valora glanced up and down the street. With the coast clear, they hurried down the stairs and up the street. Walking so close together, in the dimness, the two appeared as one.
Two black youths in their late teens called out to them, mistaking them for one of their own. Valora shot them a hand sign, one she had often seen them use. Ironically enough, it was a peace sign flipped upside down. While they didn’t appear totally convinced, they made no move to intercept them. Without looking back, Valora hasten to the end of the street and headed south for another three blocks.
Even before they reached the Schomburg, she could tell that the building had been ransacked. Most likely by local gangs, she reasoned. The security gates had been ripped from their tracks. The glass doors and huge plate glass windows were shattered, beads of glass littering the sidewalk. Once inside, she paused, allowing her to rest her load.
Valora scanned the jumbled room for hidden dangers and queried the silence for the slightest sound. Her heartbeat quickened and a single bead of sweat rolled down the side of her face as they inched forward, arm in arm, into the spacious gallery. Except for a partly damaged, overturned lectern, the room was bare.
The wires from track light fixtures reached down from the ceiling like scrawny fingers threatening to snatch them up. Moving more cautiously now, with her mother in tow, Valora crossed through gallery into the reading room. She had accompanied her father to the museum/library many times. As a result, she found her way to the stairs leading down to the storage room with ease.
Grabbing a flashlight from her bag, she stood at the top of the stairs peering down. There, at the foot of the steps stood a blue-gray door. Following the weak beam, they crept down. Valora began rummaging through her pockets for the key.
The sound of crushed glass above made her pause. Muttered voices seeped down to where they were standing. She knew, instinctively, that it was the street thugs. As her search for the key grew frantic, she was forced to sit the flashlight down. They had recognized their missed opportunity and were out to atone for their blunder, she thought. Maybe she left it behind. Her heart raced as death tiptoed closer.
Olivia, propped against the wall, was oblivious to the menace lurking above. The collapsing shadows on the wall were like sinking sands in an hourglass. Body trembling, she felt the key wedged in the corner of her jean pocket. Retrieving it, she promptly snapped up the flashlight.
But as she did, the beam vanished. She shook the flashlight several times, but it was no use. The batteries were dead. She could have kicked herself for not checking them. With time running out, she used her mind’s eye to locate the keyhole. Carefully, she plunged the key into the lock and turned. Falling tumblers and revolving cogs sounded like sweet music. With a vigorous tug on the handle, the door flew open.
With the sound of the footstep growing louder, she hauled her mother to her feet. Seconds ahead of their pursuers, Valora jerked her mother forward into the pitch black and slammed the door shut.