The following excerpt is from the first chapter of War’s End: The Storm…
And So It Ends
“We overstayed our welcome. We bullied, we pushed, we invaded … and when we were done, when the world had felt our presence in every corner of it, felt our hand on their backs, shoving our way into every aspect of their lives, faiths, even their very existence … we were hated. God, were we hated. In retrospect, I can feel no real surprise for what happened next. Our time had come. For our hypocrisy, for our crimes, we each paid such a terribly high price. The world we had known, the nation that our parents had been told to be proud of, a place of fast food and ‘freedom fries,’ home of the consumer, center of capitalism, world leader; it all ceased to exist. It was a slow, painful end, an extended death rattle, as we slowly tore ourselves apart and then allowed others to finish off what remained.
What was left in the wreckage of the world that was? We were. And this is our story, my story, and the story of us all. We have survived. We have found a way to live on … in a world where ghosts haunt us and memories whisper in our ears. Life goes on, one day at a time, and by the skin of our teeth and the force of our will, we will continue. What else can we do?” – Jess’s journal
On “Black Monday” the long-faltering United States economy collapsed into complete chaos. In the past few years, state after state had found themselves out of money and out of options. The federal government stopped promising bailouts and instead preached “state independence” and “more autonomy.” Road projects and other public works were halted and hundreds of thousands of state and even federal employees were left holding worthless checks their banks no longer honored.
Abroad, things moved quickly as well. Quietly, without fanfare or publicity, American troops had been withdrawn from the Middle East and Korean conflicts. In some places they left under cover of night, a stark gaping hole left in their absence. Iraq and Afghanistan dissolved into civil war within days of being abandoned, while their neighbors looked on and tried to decide how to fortify their borders and contain the violence while also finding a way to profit from the conflicts.
Where had it all begun? Some said it had begun with OPEC no longer honoring the decades-long agreement to set prices and sell their oil based on American currency. Others claimed it had ended with China demanding payment in yen, not American currency, on the billions in debt it was owed by the United States. Still others pointed far back to the strategies put into place after World War II that transformed the United States into an economic and political world power and consumer nation.
However it had begun, it was all now crashing down in ruin. The United States had overextended itself and the future of its citizens financially and politically in the hearts and minds of people throughout the world. From the not-so-benign “foreign policy” to the endless wars waged in the Middle East, our country, once hailed as a world leader, had become a mindless bully. We were the tyrant, the monster at the door. Where there had once been handfuls of money to seemingly any country that asked, now there was only debt and abandonment.
The militias that had gone underground or been forcibly disbanded in the mid-1990s came back with ferocious fervor. Perhaps they had never really left. But everyone from the Luddites to the Neo-Nazis to small bands of survivalists was forming, each seeking to put their own unique vision of how the world should work into action. And with those thousands of voices clamoring for different methods, different approaches—combined with the financial collapse from within, abandonment by the rest of the world, and foreign banks screaming for payment—all of these things brought one of the most powerful nations in the world to its knees. It heaved a great sigh and quickly began to come apart at the seams. The federal system went first, then the states, breaking into chunks of territories, areas full of in-fighting and instability. Among the military factions abandoned by their government rose a particularly dangerous and powerful network of soldiers in the west. They called themselves the Western Front. Comprised of units from Fort Pendleton and Fort Irwin and picking up odd assortments of the militaristic militias along the way, the Western Front began to tear its way through Nevada and Colorado. Their numbers ebbed and flowed, but as more and more of the basic infrastructure of the country broke down, their power in numbers and weaponry increased. They began to turn their eyes to the east and rumors spread that they would soon be on the move.
Jess was twelve years old on Black Monday, and Christopher was fifteen. But they both remembered that day, just as their parents before them had remembered the fall of the Twin Towers or the day that President Reagan was shot. Mom had lost her job two months before after the latest layoffs, and Dad headed home after sitting around for half the day. No business, no customers, no one out on the streets. As if a death knell had been sounded, those who were still employed, those who still had jobs and places to go to suddenly found themselves at home, wondering what would happen next. That evening they watched the television in dull shock as the President held a press conference to announce that all debts, foreign and private, were to be held null and void. The British, who were heavily invested in American banks, were already threatening embargoes. The Chinese had been rioting for weeks over the trade/import issues, and their government was making threats that continued to grow in clarity and intensity.
The world seemed to be falling apart. Jess’s parents said little, and in the months and years that followed, they simply tightened their belts, planted gardens, began raising chickens for eggs and meat, and found ways to get by on less. As the infrastructure continued to collapse, utilities and out-of-area supplies faltered. First there were the brownouts, just a lull in the electrical flow that rarely even caused the computers to reboot. Later there were blackouts, first for a few minutes and finally hours and even days at a time. The price of natural gas spiked so high that Jess’s father Michael installed a wood-burning stove in the living room against the west wall. It was a prized antique, but it was also an honest-to-goodness working stove, and Jess’s mother Jean experimented with it regularly, churning out loaves of bread that slowly transformed from inedible black carbon to uneven half-black, half-browned to beautiful, perfect loaves over a course of a few months. “The pioneers did it,” she said proudly, “and I can too!”
But the real Black Monday, the one that came on November 4th, was the one that tore apart Jess’ world. And when it was over, when the Western Front troops tore through the small town of Warsend, with barely a hiccup of resistance from its terrified residents, destroying any who even dared fight back, Jess learned what real loss felt like.
In the camps, miles to the south, weeks of marching later, and hours of standing in line at gunpoint, she found herself thrust into a tent. There was a long folding table, three men seated behind it, with several checklists on the battered folding table in front of them.
“Name?” The first man asked, barely looking up.
“Jessica Aaronson,” she replied. The second man ran his finger down the lists. “Age?” he asked, bored.
“Parents?” he asked.
“Daniel and Julie Aaronson.” He scanned further, finding nothing. “Any other relatives?”
“My brother, Christopher Aaronson.” She tried to stay calm. There were so many people here, so many places they might be. She had been just a few miles away at the store buying flour and haggling with the store owner, Michael Banks, over the price of apples when the troops came barreling in. Hearing the shots and the tank, he had pulled a weapon from a hidden place behind the counter. They had shot him on sight when they saw the rifle in his hands. His blood still stained her shirt. For three days she had tried desperately to search for her family as armed men kept the bedraggled, exhausted groups of prisoners under close watch.
The second man found nothing in his lists. He shook his head at the third, who had been eyeing Jess in a way that made her skin crawl.
She shivered. It had rained earlier while she stood in line, and she was wet and cold, filthy, and too terrified to even care that she had eaten little more than a handful of food in the past few days. Where were Mom and Dad? And Chris? Where the hell was everyone? Warsend was not a big town, but it wasn’t that small either. She had only seen one neighbor she recognized, Mrs. Dillon from down the street.
The third man smiled wide at her discomfort. It was an evil smile, full of malice and Jess shivered again in her damp shirt. “Well, she’s available for assignment then.” He wrote her name down on his list, and checked the “Troop Entertainment” box, turned to one of the guards and said, “Take her to Tent Five.” As the trooper took her by the arm and led her away, she could hear him call to her, “I’ll be by later to see how you’ve settled in.” He laughed then, and it wasn’t a pleasant sound, then barked at the man next in line to step forward.
Her feet slipped in the mud and the trooper kept a firm grip on her arm, practically dragging her along. Mrs. Dillon was there in the line outside and asked, “Did you find your parents, dear?”
Jess was in near tears, “No, Mrs. Dillon. They’re taking me to Tent Five; please see if you can find Chris or my Mom or Dad, please!” She broke into tears then, partially from the painful grip the soldier had on her arm, partly from absolute terror; what the hell was Tent Five?
Behind her, Mrs. Dillon stood stock still, her usually impeccably groomed gray hair in disarray. Strands of gray stuck out from her bun, wildly waving in the late fall wind. A young boy, clad in an oversized, stained blue and red Western Front uniform stood nearby, smirking as he watched the girl being dragged away. The old woman turned to him and took a hold of his sleeve; he was barely fifteen if even that. She shook him slightly and demanded, “Where are they taking her?”
“Lemme go, lady!” he wiggled, and one of the guards stationed nearby leveled his rifle and yelled at her to get back in line.
“Where are they taking her?” she persisted. “What’s Tent Five?”
“That’s the whores’ tent, lady. She’s gonna be ’tainment for the men.” Her grip loosened and her eyes widened in horror. He grinned at her maliciously, showing a mouth full of tobacco-stained and twisted teeth. His tongue darted out to lick his chapped lips. “She gonna git it good, too.” He pulled free of her hand and took the opportunity to give the shocked old woman a hard shove and said, “Now git back in line.” Then the boy spit a long, brown stain in the dirt, marking the old woman’s shoe with tobacco juice as he walked away. She just stood there, trembling, tears of pity trickling down her lined face. A small, thin, ugly girl behind her in line leaned close and whispered, “Welcome to hell.”
Mrs. Dillon didn’t have long to wait. A mere ten minutes later and it was her turn to stand before the three seated men.
Her lip quivered, “I’m sixty-eight years old.”
“Only my husband, Murray, and he died last year.”
The second man didn’t even bother to look up, but the third man did. And with a cold smile, he simply scribbled her name, checked the “Range Disposal” box and nodded to the guard. “Take her to the range.” The old woman went quietly—most of them did—and if anyone had been paying attention, which they weren’t, they would have heard the single shot ring out a few minutes later. She was the tenth one that morning.