By Michael Morgan
Copyright 2016 All Rights Reserved
— 13 —
A thin man in his forties stood with his forehead leaning against the side of his pickup bed slowly kicking the tire. He did not look up as Tom’s group crunched along the road’s gravel shoulder and crossed the concrete in front of the station.
“Hi Camille!” Tom called as he pushed open the station door. The assault of new signage pushed him to a stop.
REGISTER HERE FOR YOUR BENEFITS…
NATIONAL EMERGENCY! NOTICE TO ALL ALABAMA RESIDENTS…
ALL BANKS CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE…
NO CASH OR CREDIT TRANSACTIONS ACCEPTED FOR THE DURATION..
PHOTO ID AND BENEFIT CARD REQUIRED FOR ALL PURCHASES…
Camille’s voice brought him back, “Hello Tom. Welcome to the brave new world.” She was a tiny woman leaning her elbows on the counter almost lost in the tornado of cigarette and beer company placards if it weren’t for the trail of smoke rising from the Winston hanging from her lip. Her ragged voice and dried apple face made her seem like one of those old people in the anti-smoking ads.
“What’s going on?” Tom was still taking in the screaming signs that had replaced the string bikinis above the beer cooler.
“New rules,” Camille knocked the ash off her smoke. “Bob came by a few days ago and dropped off all these signs, and a rule book fit for a doorstop. Said the FEMA assholes told him to pass ‘em around, so he brought me my share.”
Tom looked at the mostly empty store shelves as he walked to the counter, “Can I have the Reade’s Digest version, please?”
“Money’s no good anymore. No credit cards neither,” Camille recited the list in a voice that hinted she was ready to break into comic madness or shrieking despair. She pointed to a camera set up that had replaced the Lotto display, “Everybody gets a free Sam’s membership until this mess is straightened out. Your new membership entitles you to seventy-five dollars of food and medicine per week for singles with an extra twenty-five per kid. Cards must be presented at designated distribution points along with a photo ID that proves you are an Alabama resident.” Camille took a drag, and her words carried the smoke toward the ceiling, “Anyone not an Alabama resident is to be allowed to purchase anything, and must be reported to law enforcement for evacuation to a refugee center.”
Tom raised an eyebrow, “That’s pretty harsh don’t you think?”
“I do what they say, or the boss will have my ass,” Camille shrugged. “You ready to sign up? I need a photo ID.”
It was Tom’s turn to shrug, “Wasn’t planning to come in today, so I don’t have my wallet. I bumped into Buck Chalmers, and he said I should stop by to hear the gossip.”
Camille nodded, “Well there’s plenty of that goin’ round. Most of it is bull.”
Tom held up his hand to interrupt, “Sorry Camille. You didn’t mention gas.”
“Official use only,” Camille stubbed out her cigarette. “That’s why that feller is out there,” she gestured to the man next to the truck. “I can’t sell him any gas, and he don’t have enough to keep goin’. Next trooper or deputy comes through will cart him off to Montgomery I guess.”
Camille craned her neck to see what the kids were doing in the back of the store, “Hey! Don’t be playing back there. That’s government property.”
“Jeremiah! Caroline!” Emma turned to the kids, “You know better than to act up like that! Now come stand by me.” She turned back to Camille as the kids joined her, “I’m sorry. They were raised better than that.”
“No harm done.” Camille gestured to the camera setup,” You want your card now?”
“I don’t have my purse,” Emma started.
Camille looked at her closely, “I don’t think we’ve met. Do you live around here?”
“She’s my housekeeper,” Tom stepped in. “Mrs. Rogers’ hired her a month before her kids came and moved her up north. Since she didn’t have a job after that, I hired her. Emma, meet Camille, Grand Mistress of all knowledge and history in Benton, Alabama.”
“So she’s a resident?” Camille asked.
“She and the kids are using my spare room, and they’ll be startin’ school as soon as school starts up again,” Tom
Camille’s attention was taken by a bobtail truck pulling into the station, “That’s my delivery, so I have to go count everything. Bring your ID in next time and I’ll set both of you up with cards.”
Tom opened the door for Emma as Camille came around the counter with a clipboard. For the first time Tom noticed the station had power, “Camille, are you on a generator?”
“Yeah, a little Honda in the back room.” She hooked a thumb towards the storeroom, “Just big enough for lights and a few other things.”
Tom nodded and let the door close. Crossing the pavement, he watched the driver exit the box truck from the corner of his eye. Black uniform, no insignia, body armor, pistol in a drop-leg holster. The man who came from the passenger side was carrying a rifle.
The pickup driver was also watching the bobtail’s box being opened, and the loading ramp extended.
Pausing next to the man, Tom asked “Can you make two miles?” At a nod, “In five minutes, go about a mile east and turn right on the dirt road. All the way to the end, and wait.” Tom clapped him on the shoulder and continued walking.