The Pulse: Ch. 4 The New America

The concluding chapter explores the fate of Craig and his family and of the USA. King’s book “Cell” gave one of his typical non-endings with no real resoltion. I dislike the “Sopranos” style ending so my story has a pretty clear resolution.

Craig had been on this street a dozen times in the last year, coming to pick up his son for the week or week-end. The houses here were nicer than those out of the country roads leading to Cornish. These houses belonged to retirees and other transplants from Boston. Here lived the young couples who couldn’t afford to buy in the Boston area, the burned out office workers who decided to work from home far away from the urban sprawl, and the middle aged divorcees like Jessica, trying to afford a house on one income. They would never be real Mainers, to the locals they’d always be Mass-holes or flat-landers, but they were now a vital part of the Cornish community.

They drove past the sprawling lawns and small stands of pine forest that separated the houses, closing in on the white Dutch-colonial that Jessica and Brian lived in. Then, just like that, there it was, exactly as he remembered it from a month ago. The house appeared undamaged, the lawn was mowed and Jessica’s red Mazda 626 was in the drive. He had finally made it.

There was only one thing that was out of place. Sitting on the front lawn was a small plastic kiddie-pool, the kind they’d had for Brian before he learned to swim. And Craig could see that Brian was sitting in the shallow little pool right now. Craig felt a lump form in his throat. He had a terrible feeling about this. All this time he had been worrying about Brian having to take care of his mother he’d never allowed himself to consider the possibility that his son would be one of the affected. His son who’d not had a cell phone, who would have been out playing when the pulse was on TV, who never answered the phone even when his mom was calling for him to. His perfect boy, his Brian, couldn’t have had his brain wiped out. Not now when he had just started junior high school, was on the verge of his teenage years, growing up so fast. It simply wasn’t possible.

Craig pulled the car into the driveway and hopped out without even turning off the engine. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Ryan getting out, looking confused at his panic. Craig sprinted over the lawn towards the pool, telling himself that it was such a very hot day, and with the power out and all it was probably the only way to get cool. Brian would look up in a moment and say hello and everything would be fine. But everything wasn’t fine. As Craig reached the little pool he was greeted by the sight of Brian’s bare butt as the boy played on his hands and knees in the water. Brian was playing in a kiddie pool in the front yard, in plain view of the road, naked as a jaybird. There was no way, Craig knew, that any twelve-year old boy in his right mind would be doing that, and certainly not his son, Brian was very modest. Craig watched as the boy plopped back into a sitting position in the shallow water grasping a toy dinosaur in his hands.

Brian noticed the man standing over him and gazed up at Craig with curious eyes. Then recognition dawned on the boy’s face and Craig felt a little weight lift from his shoulders, his son at least recognized him. Brian gave his dad a million dollar smile and cried “Wookit daddy, Bwian make spwashes!” and proceeded to splash his hands in the pool, sending water everywhere.

Craig did his best to force a smile and coaxed, “Yes I see, what a big boy you are. Are you having fun in the water?”

Brian nodded emphatically, “Uh huh, pwayin’ dinothours,” the boy explained, holding up the plastic T-Rex so Craig could see.

“Yes I see. That’s a T-Rex huh? That’s really cool buddy.”

“It’s da bestest,” Brian stated solemnly, nodding.

“Where’s your swim trunks little buddy?” Brian asked.

Brian just shrugged. Craig almost laughed, after all the times Brian had insisted on keeping even his shirt on at the beach and the pool it was clear that being modest was no longer a problem for the boy. “Where’s mommy?” he asked.

“Da house,” Brian responded, looking at the front door.

“Okay Brian, I’m gonna go in and talk to mommy, I’ll be back in a minute.”

Craig noticed that Ryan had walked up behind him while he was talking to his son. The kid was looking with sad eyes at Craig and Brian. “Is that your son?” he asked.

“Yes, this is Brian.”

“I’m sorry dude,” Ryan stammered out, watching Brian splashing gleefully in the water.

“Thanks Ryan. Why don’t you stay here and watch him for me while I find Jessica.”

“Okay,” Ryan agreed, taking a seat in the grass.

The first thing Craig noticed as he walked through the front door was sound of a blender coming from the kitchen. But if there was a blender running that meant there had to be electricity on. He reached over to the light switched next to the coat-rack and flipped them all on. To his delight the front hall light over his head lit up. Craig never thought he’d be so happy to see a simple light turn on.

“Hello, hello!” Craig called. He didn’t want to surprise Jessica.

Craig heard the blender shut off and footsteps approach. Jessica stepped into the hall and looked Craig up and down in astonishment, shocked beyond words by his sudden appearance. She was looking at him as though he had come back from the dead.

“Oh my God, Craig!” she finally exclaimed, throwing her arms around him. “I thought you were gone for sure, I mean you carry that iPhone with you everywhere. I just can’t believe you’re actually here and in one piece!”

“Oh, I let the damned battery die. I couldn’t use it, thank God. But Jessica I have to admit I’m a bit surprised to see you standing here, still yourself, talking to me.”

Jessica shook her head, “You were actually worried about me Craig, after all the crap that we’ve been through?”

“You’re the mother of my child, of course I was worried about you.”

The mention of Brian, even if not by name, seemed to bring a swift end to Jessica’s exuberance. She looked at the floor, unable to make eye contact as she spoke. “It was the stupidest thing Craig. I have that cell phone with me every day, without fail. But yesterday afternoon I was just absolutely wiped out after work so I left early and picked up Brian from school. He really wanted me to take him over to his friend Patrick’s house but I just wanted to get home and nap. So I agreed to let him bike over there as long as he took my cell phone so he could call me if there was any problems. You know how I worry about him falling off that damn bike somewhere on those back roads and no one being around to help. So he took it and I went to sleep, and, and….”

Craig interrupted as her lips quavered, “Shh, it’s okay Jess, you can tell me later, okay. Right now just tell me about the electricity being on. Did it ever go out?”

Jessica composed herself and answered, “No, it isn’t actually on, we’re running on the generator now, you know every good Mainer has a generator to keep the heat on if a blizzard knocks out the power in the middle of winter. That’s why we haven’t got the air conditioners or the fans on, though, we need to conserve. In fact I only turned it on now so I could make Brian a smoothie. You remember how much he liked those when he was little. Mostly we just use it at night so we can make it cool enough to get to sleep.”

“What about the refrigerator, all the food will spoil.”

“I know but there’s nothing to be done about it, the generator is low on fuel already. Besides we live in the country, we can get milk and fruit straight from the farm.”

Craig considered this, but saw a major flaw in that idea. “But what about when winter comes. What will you do then. We need to get enough fuel for that generator so it can run all day and night.”

Jessica shook her head. “Craig I think it’s obvious we can’t stay here in the winter if things are still like this. There won’t be any food to be storing in the refrigerator in the first place.”

Craig had thought of this, but he hadn’t wanted to say it out loud, he wanted to protect Jessica from his darker thoughts on their possible future. “Look, I’m sure that things will be sorted out by then,” he declared, trying to sound certain.

Jessica looked at him pitifully. “You and I both know that isn’t likely to happen.”

Just then the door poked open a crack and Ryan popped his head in. “Hey should I get Brooke out of the car, she looks like she’s pretty hot?” he asked.

“Oh my God I forgot all about her! Poor thing must be roasting in there. Yeah go get her out Ryan.”

Jessica looked quizzically at Craig for a moment after Ryan disappeared to get Brooke out. Finally she asked, “You brought her with you?”

Craig wasn’t encouraged by her tone of voice, but he explained, “Jess, she was affected, completely infantile. I couldn’t just leave her in that apartment to die could I? You know the whole city basically burned to the ground.”

Jessica’s stern expression mellowed. “No I suppose you couldn’t,” she admitted.

“So, who’s the kid?” she asked, the bitterness completely out of her voice now.

“Oh, you mean Ryan. Yeah, I found him cowering in this demolished convenience store in Manchester. Poor kid lost his whole family. I decided to let him come along too.”

Jessica smiled as she shook her head, “That’s always you Craig, saving the lost little puppies. There weren’t enough of them in Boston so you came all the way up here to save us too,” she chided.

Craig just nodded in agreement while his mind was filled with the image of Timmy growing smaller in his rear-view mirror, the boy he could have saved but didn’t. He forced the picture out of his mind for now. Ryan came in the door and addressed Craig. “She’s playing in that little pool thing now with your kid. Is that okay?”

Craig nodded, “Yeah that’s fine Ryan.”

“Okay, can I use your bathroom then?” he asked Jessica.

“Oh of course, it’s up the stairs, first door on the left. And when you come back down you can have a smoothie if you like.”

Ryan’s face lit up. “Yeah I’d love one, thanks,” he announced as he sprinted up the stairs.

Both Craig and Jessica had a snigger at Ryan’s expense before heading into the kitchen together to make the smoothies. Jessica was putting a lot of effort into the drinks and Craig figured it was because she was trying to take her mind of all the other problems facing them. Without the goal of getting here to focus his thoughts Craig realized he was at a loss for what to do. He had gotten here, but now what? Should they stay here in this little town in Maine, or should they make for Canada? Craig wished he had some news source to help him make these crucial decisions.

Meanwhile Ryan had joined them in the kitchen and seemed anxious to get the creamy berry drink in his stomach. Then suddenly his face lit up for something completely different. “Hey, your kid is about the same age as me right?”

“Brian’s twelve,” Craig answered.

“Right so I bet he has some shoes I can wear. I mean it’s not like he needs them anymore…” Ryan clearly regretted his choice of words as soon as he said them and fell silent. Jessica stopped dolling out the smoothie from the blender and looked absently at the counter top. Craig could feel the heavy silence weighing on all of them. Ryan couldn’t take the tension and hopped up mumbling that he was going to check on Brooke as he quickly left the kitchen.

Jessica put down the glass and blender and faced Craig. "When I woke up from my nap the power was already out. I don’t know if I never heard the phone ring when he called or if it just never went through. But I went outside to look around and I saw Mr. Pelham, our neighbor, wandering around his front yard in nothing but a bathrobe, crying his eyes out. Well it didn’t take long to figure out that he wasn’t the only person acting this way. When I went into his house to call an ambulance because I thought he’d had a stroke, I found his wife lying on the floor next to the phone sucking her thumb. The phone was off the hook next to her and I just had this premonition that I shouldn’t touch it.

“After that I set out on foot to find Brian. I don’t know why but I never even thought of taking the car. I was in such a panic. I got about halfway to Patrick’s house when I met them. Patrick and Brian were walking along the side of the road towards me and I remember thinking how odd it was that they were holding hands. I mean how often do you see two twelve year old boys holding hands? Then I noticed that his flip-flops were gone and he wasn’t even carrying them. You know how many times I’ve told him not to walk around barefoot around here with all the deer ticks. I was actually thinking of yelling at him for forgetting his shoes and not calling me before coming home.” Her voice got raspy again at this point and her eyes watered up.

"It was so stupid, I know, but it’s what I thought. Then I noticed that he had a funny look on his face, this kind of lost puppy look. He wasn’t paying attention to where he was walking, it seemed that Patrick was leading him along. When they got to me Patrick just looked up at me with these big puffy red eyes and told me something was wrong with Brian. I got down and looked into his eyes and I could see that he wasn’t all there. He just giggled though and said mommy was being silly in that little kid voice.

“I knew right away that my big boy was gone. That silly grin on his face, the messy hair, the dirty bare toes digging at the ground, it was like looking at my little preschooler again, but a larger version. He’s exactly as I remember him Craig, my perfect little three-year old all over again. He likes the same foods, the same silly baby books I dug out of the boxes in the basement. You remember that teddy bear, Snowball, that he used to have, well I found it in one of the boxes and he’s been carrying it around cuddling it same as he used to. It really isn’t so bad for him, we’ll just have to raise him all again. He’s only lost about nine years really, it isn’t that much.”

Craig nodded, feeling the hope that Jessica had spread to him. “Of course we’ll raise him again, better than the first time, since we know all the mistakes we made now. Of course when you say ‘we’ do you mean…”

“Well, Craig, I was kind of hoping that under the circumstances you could stay here. I mean not necessarily in the same house. We know how that worked out. But nearby, so we can both be here for him.”

Craig considered this. He hadn’t really ever thought of the possibility of this disaster bringing he and Jessica back together, but he did want to be nearby, especially given the lack of a communications network. Even if it was repaired, who would ever feel safe using it again? “Okay Jess, I think this might just work. Although now we’ve sort of got three kids if you count Ryan and Brooke.”

Jessica looked a bit miffed at the suggestion of caring for Brooke and Craig could see that right away. “Look Jess, I know what you’re thinking but you have to understand that any sexual relationship with Brooke is over for me now. She’s an infant for all intents and purposes, she only knows me as her daddy.”

Jessica nodded reluctantly. “Well I suppose we can’t hold them responsible for their past sins as adults now that they don’t even remember them. Fine, she can stay, but she is your responsibility.”

Craig was relieved to finally have that resolved. Now it was time to join the new kids out front with their drinks and be a family together. “Oh, you said Brian lost his flip-flops, but are his sneakers still in his room?” Craig asked as they loaded the smoothies and some crackers on a tray.

“I think so, why?”

“Well if I recall Brian’s preschool days well I don’t think he’ll be using them much, so why don’t we give them to Ryan.”

“What about ticks, though?”

“You know you’re just as likely to get a tick wearing sandals, we’ll just have to do a good body check each night at bath time.”

Jessica chuckled, “Yes I suppose bath time will be a part of our routine again. And you know what? I think I’ll enjoy having that fun time with my son again. It isn’t like he’s got any concern for his privacy now.”

“Yeah, about that, how come you let him outside without a stitch of clothing on, even if he is in the pool?”

“Oh, well, I guess I’ve just found it easier to just pretend he’s really a three-year old and it is really hot out. Besides there’s no one to see him anymore, the whole block is empty now and I kind of want him to enjoy all the treats of being a little boy again, including running around in his birthday suit on a hot summer day,” Jessica explained.

“So what happened to the whole neighborhood anyway, I’ve been passing through these ghost towns and wondering where all the people have disappeared to.”

Jessica thought for a moment then said, “I think they’ve all left for the north because it’s a no phone zone.”

“A what?”

“No cell phone reception in the northern half of Maine, no towers built yet. Last night after all this horrible stuff happened we had a town meeting.”

Craig was confused. “How did everyone know there was a meeting?”

“It’s a very small town Craig. Anyway pretty much everyone decided to either head for the no-phone zone or for Canada. They all felt that there must be something even worse coming after what happened yesterday so it was best to get away. The minister over at First Congregationalist loaded up the church van with some of the affected and got volunteers from his congregation to ‘adopt’ others and take them along so they wouldn’t be left behind here,” she explained.

“So why are you still here?”

Craig was surprised to see Jessica actually blush a little. “To tell you the truth, I was kind of holding out hope that you might show up here. I thought I was crazy even to hope, but I stayed didn’t I,” she told him.

At this point they walked out into the warm day and joined the kids in the front yard. Craig actually felt quite happy as he watched Brian and Brooke splashing around in the water, Ryan looking deeply satisfied as he slurped at is drink and Jessica looking supremely maternal. If the result of this disaster was bringing their family back together and even expanding it a bit, maybe it was all worth it.

After they finished their drinks it was time to get to the business of getting the house in shape for accommodating several more people. Brian was busy skipping around the yard blowing bubbles and Brooke had been placed safely in a make-shift playpen so she couldn’t put any bugs in her mouth. Craig and Ryan went to work getting more fuel for the generator from the Texaco station in town and rooting through the abandoned neighbors’ houses for supplies.

They decided the finished basement would do for a temporary bedroom for Ryan. The only problem was the lights didn’t seem to work. “Hmm, must be a fuse was blown,” Jessica thought aloud. “Okay, I’ll go up to the fuse box and start flipping switches, you yell when the lights come on,” she told them.

Jessica hurried up the steps, leaving Craig and Ryan in the darkened rumpus room. “Did that do it?” she called down a moment later.

“No, still no lights!” Craig called back.

A second passed and then the lights flipped on all at once. Not only the lights were on though, apparently the last time he was down here playing Xbox, Brian had left the TV on. So it turned on too when the fuse was flipped. In an instant Craig knew that something wasn’t right. The TV didn’t go to fuzz, it turned instantly to a black screen with a flat white line across the middle and began to make a very strange noise, almost like the tone of a dial-up modem or a fax machine. Craig realized he had only a second to step back out the door, covering his ears to protect himself from what had to be the pulse. But Ryan, oblivious to the danger, was stepping further into the room. He had only a second to make the snap decision to sacrifice himself to save Ryan.

“Close your eyes!” Craig screamed, lurching forward and clapping his hands over Ryan’s ears.

The boy obeyed immediately, hearing the panic in Craig’s voice. Craig glanced at the TV as the white line suddenly was brilliantly lit up, almost blinding him and the sound became suddenly clear. It was no longer a flat dial-tone sound but a nursery rhyme boring into his brain. He felt warmth in his head, deep inside his skull and in a moment of total comprehension he understood that in this act of sacrifice he was atoning for abandoning not just Timmy, but so many others who he had run past without helping.

He felt… so wonderful, so absolutely wonderful. The pleasure centers of his brain seemed to all be being activated at once and he was suddenly awash in endorphins as he felt all his years of education wash away. Craig briefly took comfort in the fact that Brian and Brooke hadn’t felt pain as their minds were wiped, they’d felt pleasure. Then Craig forgot all about Brooke and Brian, the very names disappeared from his mind. Craig felt so silly right now, holding onto this other boy’s ears, he must be playing some kind of game. He liked games. Then the lights went out and the pretty nursery rhyme stopped and Craig felt scared, he not like the dark. He want to cry. Then someone with light comes in and shines it at him. He wants to leave this place now, but he can’t think of any words to say. His head is all cloudy and jumbled and when he opens his mouth, he just makes funny noises at the person. He was sure he wanted to say something much bigger, but he can’t even summon little words. But then the person takes his hands and helps him to his feet and leads him up these big steps. He feels dizzy on them, it’s much easier to crawl up on his hands and knees.

It’s much lighter at the top and Craig can see the person now. It’s a very pretty person. Craig is no longer aware of the concept of gender, but he does know the person looks kind of like his mommy. He wonders where his mommy is and who this pretty person is. Another person, smaller than the other one, comes from the stairs behind him. Craig thinks he looks at him funny. Then this person throws his arms around Craig and hugs him right there on the floor. The person says soft things to Craig, but he doesn’t know what they mean. But he likes being hugged and the tone of voice is soothing so Craig rests his head on the person’s shoulder. Craig feels so relaxed right now. He feels warm stuff on his chin, but it doesn’t bother him at all. He also feels warm down below, running down his legs, but this feels normal to him and he just giggles at how it tickles.

An hour later, Craig feels even better. It’s starting to get dark outside and the big bright thing in the sky is really low, but Craig is happy because the pretty person who calls herself “Mommy” has taken off his wet clothes. They had started getting cold and that had upset him. She let him play outside with a person she called “Brian.” Brian wasn’t wearing any clothes either, so Craig decided that meant he was “little” like Craig. It was clear to him that mommy and “Ryan” were big because they made lots of noises he didn’t understand and they wore clothes. Craig thought he used to be big, but since mommy took his clothes off it was clear that he wasn’t big like her anymore. That was okay, he liked the warm breeze on his bum and the feeling of the soft tickly grass on his footsies, he’d rather get to run round nakie than be big. When it got dark mommy made him come in and she put a soft fluffy thing on him under his tummy wrapped cozily around his bum. He didn’t like it though and tried to take it off, but mommy looked angry and said things in an angry tone and he cried but didn’t want to take the thing off and make mommy mad.

Craig crawled around the house, it was much easier than walking, he got really dizzy sometimes when he walked and his legs felt like jelly. He liked exploring on his hands and knees, he wanted to put all his discoveries in his mouth but mommy or the other big person would stop him. Instead, he sucked on his thumb, it felt so nice to put that in his mouth, he just drifted away in pleasure as he suckled on his thumb. Then mommy put him in this walled-in area with another “little” person like him. But this person had silly bouncy things above her tummy, they looked really silly to him. He watched everything she did with amazement because she seemed to like doing things he did, like putting the noise-making blue thing in her mouth to chew. When she lay on her back and put her toes in her mouth, Craig copied her, laying on his back and stretching with a lot of difficulty. This was really hard to do. But then he succeeded in stuffing his big toe in his mouth. This was great, it was much bigger than his thumb. Mommy came in and saw him doing this and she smiled and giggled at him. It was the first time he’d seen her smile. He loved it. He’d do this more so she’d smile at him.

Craig went to sleep that night after being lovingly tucked in by Jessica as Ryan watched on. “He saved my life, well my mind at least,” Ryan said with awe.

“I know honey, he wanted to protect you the way he couldn’t protect Brian I think.”

“Will you take care of him now?”

“Yes, but I could certainly use some help if you wouldn’t mind.”

“Of course I will. I mean, I owe him don’t I.”

Jessica nodded, “Yes, but you don’t have to stay here helping out with all three.”

Ryan shrugged, “Hey where am I gonna go?”

Jessica finished tucking Craig in to his makeshift crib and then gave Ryan a hug. “Let’s go downstairs and have the last of the ice cream before it melts,” she said, smiling.

Six Weeks Later

Jessica Anderson looked up from her novel as the TV’s test pattern flicked off in front of her. She put down her copy of Duma Key, which she was reading for the fourth time, and focused on the TV screen. She longed for the day when she would be able to buy a new book rather than re-read old favorites. She hoped that day would be soon. The television screen was filled with a blue oval with the words ‘The White House’ printed inside it. A podium stood at the center of the oval. After a moment a thin older woman stepped up to the podium and began to address the camera. Jessica thought President Nancy Pelosi had aged a decade in the month since she took office. It had to be a very tough job. Bush had had his mind wiped by a cell phone call, Jessica privately wondered how they could tell, and Cheney had died in a helicopter crash, so the job was thrust onto the next person in the line of succession, the Speaker of the House. Jessica just hoped that Pelosi was strong enough to save the country from this crisis.

President Pelosi addressed the camera, "To those of you who have the ability to see me today on your televisions, I say welcome. To the millions still in the dark in this once great nation, I say we are doing all we can to help you. The suffering you are all facing is felt by all of us here in Washington and help is on the way. We have made clear to the Canadian government that they must improve the abominable conditions in the refugee camps and we believe we will be able to begin repatriating our fellow Americans very soon.

"I have spoken to the Mexican President and we have reached an understanding about re-opening the border in the near future. I must urge you not to try to cross the border to Mexico as the desert is very dangerous and the living conditions there are no better. We are making every effort to rebuild our nation’s massive infrastructure as quickly as is possible. But this cannot be done overnight. What the terrorists destroyed in a day will take years to rebuild. But together we can do it. Together, and with the help of our loyal allies we can make this once great nation truly great again.

"It is for this reason that I am issuing an Executive Order dividing the United States into ten military districts to be administered temporarily by the NATO powers. Please remember that martial law is still in effect for the time being. Please cooperate with the troops arriving in your cities and towns, they are here on our invitation to help us.

“I finish my talk with you today as always by reminding you to spread the word to your neighbors who may not yet know. Satellite television is safe, satellite phones are safe. They were never affected by the terrorist signal. Spread the word to anyone who may not know that the terrorist signal has been deactivated for nearly a month now and we are hot on the trail of the culprits. Help your neighbors, help you community, help this nation. Good day and good luck.”

Jessica turned off the TV as the screen went back to a signal pattern. The German troops stationed in Cornish had doled out satellite dishes when they arrived two weeks ago. They had only a few to go around, but there weren’t many people left in Cornish anyway. Before that the only news she had gotten was via leaflets dropped from passing military planes, blanketing the countryside with news.

Things had settled down in the weeks since the pulse and the whole family had fallen into a routine. Every day Ryan biked down to the gas station in town and got fuel for the generator. Jessica drove to Fryeburg where the local farmers and gardeners laid out all their produce at an open market that had replaced the supermarkets. The only thing she’d had trouble getting a hold of was diapers, so she’d fashioned makeshift cloth diapers out of some towels. They were crude and a nightmare to wash, but they had to do. She found it was easiest to let Craig and Brooke just play in the nude out in the yard so she only had to worry about diapers at night, leaving fewer to clean. It was quite strange at first to have her former husband with his beautiful body strutting around in all his glory. It wasn’t the same as seeing Brian that way. He was still her little boy after all. Craig was different; after all he was a full-grown man. Jessica eventually got over the little shame she felt at seeing him exposed and grew accustomed to it. Most of all she missed the companionship of having a mental equivalent to talk to. Watching the love of her life crawling around on all fours with a string of drool hanging constantly from his chin, prattling non-sense up at her while he gazed at her with those wide glassy eyes. It was almost painful to her at first. Yet when he did something as cute and infantile as laying on his back and jamming his own toes in his mouth, she couldn’t help but smile at his endearing antics.

Seeing the vivacious Brooke playing undressed was a different problem, because it often distracted Ryan. The boy couldn’t help but look as Brooke toddled and crawled about with her boobs bouncing freely as she went. Jessica tried to keep a t-shirt on her, but the girl was particularly good at slipping out of it and Jessica got tired of having the good shirts blowing away in the wind or finding them laying discarded in the dirt. At least when the German NATO troops arrived they brought a massive supply of diapers and milk with them.

Jessica was jostled from her thoughts as the front door slammed closed behind Ryan. “Ooh, sorry about that,” he apologized.

“That’s okay. Did you get the fuel okay?”

“Yep, same as always,” he said, gesturing to the heavy canister in his hand as he slipped off his borrowed shoes.

Jessica watched as Ryan headed out the back sliding door to re-fuel the generator. The boy had had to grow up fast since the pulse. Ironically his experience was the exact opposite of all the other members of the family who did a lot of growing down. Ryan had effectively become the man of the house over the past few weeks and he had done the best job he was capable of at such a young age. Jessica wished she could save him from growing up too fast, but it simply wasn’t possible in this new world.

Hearing the sounds of cheerful laughter she decided to check on the kids. All three of them, Craig, Brian and Brooke, were sitting naked in the pool having a splash fight in the shallow water, giggling merrily at their own antics. Jessica looked down at their joyous faces and decided that perhaps it was they who were the lucky ones after all. They knew nothing of the hardships of this damaged world, nothing of the heartache of loss she and so many others faced. They had all become completely innocent. After all didn’t they say that ignorance was bliss.

Craig splashed his hands wildly in the water. He was having lots of fun. He liked the way the water flew in the air when he hit it and he made happy tones to show his delight. He was playing with his brother and sister, and they were all making these fun splashes. Mommy was smiling down at them and that made Craig glow with joy. He loved it when mommy smiled at him. But mommy made them leave the pool, she dried him off with a fluffy towel and took his hand, leading him on his shaky legs to the kitchen. Craig missed the pool, it was so hot and sticky in the house. Mommy helped him sit in a big chair and then she snapped a plastic tray in front of him, trapping him in the chair. Craig wanted to get out and play on the floor but mommy was leaving him there. He yelled and fussed and banged the tray, he was upset. But mommy ignored him and left the room so Craig cried and cried. Where had she gone?

Then mommy was back with his sister and she helped her sit in a chair next to Craig. This happened every day, but Craig’s attention wandered so much and his memories were always so cloudy that he forgot sometimes. Craig calmed down now that mommy was back and then he saw something else, the pretty dust motes illuminated in the sunlight. He watched them with awe, his mouth agape. He felt the warm wet stuff pouring down his chin and covering his front, it felt nice. Sister banged at her tray and babbled, Craig copied her as he always did, smiling as he babbled, “Baadaadoobeeahhh” and giggling gaily at his silly prattle. Mommy fed them both while big brother Brian sat at the table like a big boy and ate with his own fingers. But Craig was glad mommy still fed him, he liked being silly and turning his head so he got all messy. Mommy always laughed when he got all messy.

As Jessica spoon fed her naked ex-husband and his former lover strapped in their high chairs, babbling and drooling and covered in smeared food while they drummed their heels on the foot-rests, she realized that this scene was surely being played out all over the country in a million different kitchens. This was the new American family.