Authors: G. Michael Hopf
A PLUME BOOK
Photo by SPARKPIX
G. MICHAEL HOPF
is the bestselling author of
The Long Road
. He spent two decades living a life of adventure before settling down to pursue his passion for writing. He is a former combat veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and former bodyguard. He lives with his family in San Diego, California.
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published by Plume, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 2014
Copyright © 2014 by G. Michael Hopf
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REGISTERED TRADEMARK—MARCA REGISTRADA
ISBN 978-0-698-15938-9 (eBook)
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
• • •
• • •
Olympia, Washington, Republic of Cascadia
aley opened her eyes and looked at the alarm clock that sat next to her on the nightstand. The green fluorescent hands of the clock illuminated 7:18
Frustrated by another sleepless night, she gazed toward the brightening horizon to the east. She let go of the anxious feeling living deep inside of her for a moment as she lay there, staring. She didn’t want to tear her eyes away for fear she’d miss the sun’s first rays of the day.
The mornings when the typical layer of fog didn’t hang over the city provided sunrises to marvel at. She loved these mornings, when she could appreciate the simple joys in life. Her life now was so different than her early years, and it made her treasure moments like these. It’s only when you lose the things that mean so much that you finally realize their importance. So often she wondered how people in the old days must have taken their lives for granted. How they must have thought that life as they knew it could never end. But she now knew, not only because of her own experience but also from what history teaches, nothing lasts forever. Life and especially death are a major part of human existence. She had seen her share of death, more than she would ever care to see again, but she knew that what peace her country had would end one day.
The deep orange light of the rising sun crested the horizon and lit up her sparsely furnished bedroom. Her sleigh bed sat parallel to the large window that was providing her the solar show. Opposite her bed, sitting like a monolith, was an antique armoire; it towered in the room at over six feet. She took great joy in shopping and in decorating her house with quality pieces from around the world. She pulled her thick duvet up to her chin and watched Mother Nature give birth to this new day.
The rumbling of the truck driving down her driveway jolted her back to the present. The man from the local dairy was delivering her weekly eggs, milk, butter, and cream. She rolled onto to her back and looked at the ceiling.
John was scheduled to arrive in the late morning to continue the interview. She was dreading it. All weekend, she questioned why she ever agreed to do these interviews in the first place. The past was painful enough—having to talk about her memories at length only made those distant moments fresh again. It had been years since she had thought about some of the people who had been in her life when she was a young child. Haley was overwhelmed at the prospect of having to open up again.
She mused why her father had taken the time to tell her the entire story of his life. She would never forget that winter day when he sat her down and told her how everything came to be, how society collapsed and came back together. Some of the details haunted her to this day.
Hunger pangs prodded her to finally rise out of bed and start her day. Haley was the type of person who enjoyed sticking to a routine, and she looked forward to her morning one every day. She couldn’t quite put her finger on whether it was the freshly brewed French-roast coffee with a little cream she liked better, or the lightly toasted rye bread smeared with a large tab of sweet butter, but either way, she couldn’t start her day without it.
Operating on autopilot, she grabbed the stainless steel teakettle, filling it with filtered water from a five-gallon jug she kept in her pantry. Fresh, clean water was a precious commodity. After the lights went out, many of the systems and infrastructure that brought potable drinking water to many municipalities had collapsed. Even after decades of refurbishment, many had not been rebuilt or brought to the standards people had been accustomed to before. Olympia’s municipal water system still had issues and Haley didn’t trust it. She had a filtration system installed in her house years ago, but even with that, she chose to have her drinking water brought in weekly from a company that had a small reservoir located fifteen miles outside of town.
Even though she had been alive before the lights went out, she had a difficult time remembering the everyday luxuries her parents had spoken of. Fresh available fruits, varieties of meat, reliable electricity, ease of travel, but most of all fresh water. She knew that the way that people treated and respected water was far different now than in the Before. When the water stopped flowing freely and easily, the well-manicured landscaping went with it. Those picturesque scenes of thick lush lawns and endless flowering plants were replaced with robust gardens. What water people had rationed to them, they used sparingly and productively, to provide the basics. It just made so much sense to her. She understood the desire to see pretty flowers and yards covered in grass, but after living through the scarcity of the time that followed the attacks and the Great Civil War, she would always be prepared. Many in Cascadia shared the same pragmatic outlook. Few looked to the government, much less to anyone else, to provide or take care of them. An entire generation had lived through and had taught their progeny to be more self-reliant and to live self-sustainably.
The whistle of the teakettle pulled her away from her other morning chores. She poured the hot water over the finely ground coffee in the French press, the rich, slightly burnt aroma filling her nostrils. That smell alone made her day. She made her way to the front door to pick up the dairy products that had been delivered. With the cool temperature outside, her cream would be the perfectly chilled companion to her hot coffee.
She opened the front door and was surprised to see a man hovering at the entrance, his face obscured.
“Are you coming to get this?” he asked, holding up a basket filled with the dairy products she was in need of.
It was a voice she knew instinctually, but she almost couldn’t believe it.
“Hunter? Hunter, is that you? Oh my God, it’s you!” Haley practically shouted. She grabbed her son into an embrace. Hugging him tightly, she said, “My boy! How are you? I can’t believe you’re here!”
“Mom, hi. Uh, Mom, you’re crushing me and the eggs,” Hunter said.
“I’m sorry. I just didn’t know I’d see you this morning. Had I known I would have prepared the hollandaise for some eggs Benedict,” Haley said, petting his hair. She still embraced him tightly, almost as if she was afraid to let him go.
“Sorry I didn’t call, but I wanted to surprise you,” Hunter said.
She pulled back and stared into his blue eyes.
Hunter Rutledge was her oldest son. He was a tall man, standing at six feet two inches, and he had the signature Van Zandt brown hair and piercing light eyes. His wide shoulders hovered over his tapered, lean body. When Haley looked at Hunter, she saw her own father.
“Come in before you freeze. Sorry, I don’t know what I was thinking having you stand in the cold any longer!” Haley said apologetically as she led him into the warm house.
“I didn’t mean to startle you, Mom. But your timing was uncanny. I picked up the basket and was about to knock when you opened the door,” Hunter said, with a slight nasal edge to his voice. His nose was a little stuffy from the cold, damp air.
She took the basket from him and rushed back into the kitchen.
“Do you want some fresh coffee?” she hollered.
“Sure, sounds good,” he responded as he took off his coat and walked into the living room. He looked around. It had been a long time since he had seen his mother. The house she now lived in was not one he was familiar with; she had moved into it after his father had died a few years ago. Tired from his long journey, he sat down on a Victorian-style winged love seat.
Haley rushed into the room and placed a coffee mug on the table in front of him and turned to go back to the kitchen. She took a few steps and quickly turned back around.
“You take cream with your coffee, right?”
“Ah, yeah. Thanks, Mom.”
He looked at the steam coming off the coffee and took a sip, grinning. The bold taste of the coffee made him feel much better.
Haley came back into the room and took a seat in the chair across from him. Gently holding her mug in her lap, she asked him a few questions about his travels. Haley was very excited to see him, but also nervous because he had shown up with no notice. She kept many of her family secrets close to her chest, and now she was sharing them with John for the interview. She would have a time and place when she would share things with her sons, but she wanted to tell them when she was ready. Having Hunter there meant the conversation needed to happen sooner rather than later.
“Mom, is everything okay?” he asked, sounding a bit concerned. Though he hadn’t seen his mother in a long time, he knew her well, and had zeroed in on her anxiety.
“Yes, I’m fine, just happy to see you! I’m still surprised that you’re here,” she answered brightly.
“Are you sure?”
“I have to admit, I can’t quite believe you’re here. Seeing you makes everything so much better,” she said, smiling ear to ear.
“Mom, what’s wrong?” he asked. His tone had shifted to one that was softer. He stood and pulled a chair close to her.
She grabbed his hand. “Oh, Hunter, don’t worry about me. I want to hear about you! How long can you stay?”
“The ambassador is here for a quick emergency meeting, then we head back late tomorrow.”
“I still don’t understand why you had to go all the way to the ROT to get a job when you could have easily gotten a job here, not down there,” Haley said, her tone exposing a lingering frustration.
“Again with this?”
She recognized his testy tone and shifted her attitude. “How are things in Texas?”
“Good. Actually, things are really good for us down there.”
“Are you staying safe?”
“We are as safe as you can get down there. All the troubles are hours from us. Austin is as safe as Olympia,” he replied.
“Honey, I wasn’t born yesterday. I read the papers! And you
remember, your cousin Brian works for the president? That means nothing happens without me knowing about it. They tell me exactly what’s going on down there,” Haley said. She stared at him, then took a large sip of coffee.
“My mission down there is important. It’s critical for us to provide as much support to the ROT as possible. They are our allies and without them, not much stands in between us and—”
“I know the talking points. I’m just so tired of war,” Haley said, interrupting him.
“It’s important work.”
“I know, son, I do,” she said, then shifted to another topic. “Any word from your brother, Sebastian?”
“No, I haven’t heard from him in months.”
“I haven’t either. I’m worried about him,” she said. Cracking a smile, she said, “Must be that darn Van Zandt blood coursing through your veins. Causes the males of the family to up and take off.”
“It’s Grandad’s fault, right?”
“Funny you mention him,” she said, adjusting herself in the chair. “I have to be honest. Everything isn’t okay with me.”
The blood drained from his face. “What is it?”
She took a deep breath. “A few weeks ago, I was approached about doing an in-depth interview. About Grandad and Nana, your uncle Sebastian. Everything.” She paused, clearing her throat. “I agreed to it. I had the first interview last Friday. This may sound pathetic, but it’s been . . . much tougher than I thought it would be. Not only because I’m talking about difficult times, but also because I decided for once I’d be honest and tell the world what
happened. It’s not just a chance to tell the history of our country, it’s a chance to tell the history of our family . . . the true history.”
“Good for you, Mom!” Hunter exclaimed. Then he added, more seriously, “It may be tough, but it’s important.”
She nodded and continued. “I think I deliberately closed off parts of my brain for years. But now I know why your grandad sat me down years ago. He wanted me to be the one to tell this story. He probably knew that.” She paused. “He always knew.”
Haley tried to convince Hunter to stay, but in just a few hours he was off again, back to work serving the Cascadian ambassador. He promised to come back later and stay the night. When Hunter decided to go into the public sector, there wasn’t any problem finding him a spot—the Van Zandt and Rutledge family names were revered in many parts of the republic. However, he had gone against his mother’s wishes and went to work for the Cascadian State Department’s Foreign Service as a specialist. He quickly rose through the ranks and now was the Deputy Chief of Mission for the ROC Embassy in the Republic of Texas.
Haley wasn’t convinced that her son’s job was purely administrative. Deep down, she felt he was probably working in a clandestine division as an operative. Haley couldn’t prove it and no one in her sphere of influence in government would say. She felt uneasy about where her two boys were. The world was still a very dangerous place.
Shortly after Hunter left, a knock at the door announced John’s arrival. Her demeanor was different than it was the first time she opened her door to him. Although she was still feeling a bit raw from Friday’s interview, the surprise visit from Hunter and her renewed purpose in telling her stories to honor her father’s legacy had her in a better state of mind. She could now shroud her tender emotions in strident purpose.
She opened the door and there before her was John, this time by himself. The camera crews had gotten what they needed the last time.
“Good morning, John,” she said pleasantly.
“Good morning, Haley,” he answered, giving a slight grin.
Haley asked him to come in and they both exchanged pleasantries and small talk. She deliberately didn’t mention Hunter’s arrival; she wanted to keep some distance and privacy.
After a few minutes of chatting they both took their chairs in the living room.
John was very excited about the continuation of the interview. For him, the weekend had dragged on, but it did allow him the luxury to reflect on the interview and spend a great deal of time compiling a list of follow-up questions. He pulled out his thick notepad and clicked his ballpoint pen.
“Wow—that is all I can say. I have to admit that I didn’t expect to have this type of reaction to this interview. I thought I’d come, we’d talk, you’d share the same stuff I’ve heard all my life, but you didn’t do that. The level of detail you’re providing, not just about your family but the others who were involved in the Great Civil War, is amazing. Let me say thank you again for this honor—it truly is.”