Editor’s Note: The following article is excerpted from Roy Griffis’s novel The Big Bang, published by Liberty Island Media. Set in a United States destroyed by Islamic terrorists, the novel chronicles the struggle of an underground resistance fighting to rebuild their nation.
When he opened the passenger door, he found his side of the Jeep filled with bags and packages. Hanner scooped up most of them, shoved them in the back. There were already two long packages lying on top of the coolers. One squarish box was on the floor. Baldwin climbed in, put the strangely heavy box between his feet, and buckled up.
Baldwin was looking down at the contents of the smaller box. Inside was a semi-automatic pistol, a brand new Glock from the markings on the package, and under it was a heavy box of bullets. “You think we’ll need these?”
Hanner didn’t reply. He didn’t need to answer that question.
“Waiting period is only for Hollywood actors who are part-time residents.” Hanner grinned briefly. “The boys at the shop know me. They know I’m not gonna go ventilate my ex-wife or anything like that. Now, do you know how to use a pistol?”
It had been a long time since he’d handled a weapon for a role. He didn’t really know people who kept firearms. It seemed like the kind of thing the yee-haw and ya-hoo set did.
Sensing his reluctance, Hanner said, “It’s no different than a hammer. It can be used right and it can be used wrong.”
“You’ll have to show me how to use it safely.” Putting the pistol in the box, Alec twisted in his seat and dropped it in the back. He ruffled the fur on Queenie’s head before turning around. He dug into his pocket, pulled out his cell phone. Methodically he went through the numbers. Kim. Addie. His agent. His brothers. His parents. Each time there was no answer, if there was service at all. Hanner waited until he folded up the phone, then turned on the radio.
It was chaos on the airways, as well. Smaller AM stations were scrambling to gather more information, and they were reduced to simply repeating the same few facts over and over about unconfirmed reports of strange attacks and random bombings, mostly snatched from law-enforcement scanners and sources. One or two of the larger stations were able to get some call-ins from the area, but they only added to the confusion with reports of scattered explosions, huge clouds towering above downtown Los Angeles.
The news, such as it was, only unsettled Baldwin more, fed his sense of impotence and helplessness until he thought he was going to vomit. Hanner reached out to turn off the radio. Alec stayed his hand. “No, we need to know what’s ahead.”
Hanner shrugged and concentrated on driving. They were speeding down Highway 159. At Interstate 85, a right turn would take them south to California. The road was almost empty of other vehicles. This was normal, for the most part, the vast spaces between towns tending to thin out the traffic. Today it was unnerving. It began to feel like they were the only ones alive.
They drove in silence for a time, scanning the radio channels until one of the larger stations out of Portland played a tape recording from NBC. It was a phone call the national news desk had received about 15 minutes earlier. In accented English with a strange cadence, a man’s voice exulted, “The Martyrs of California have struck a blow for jihad and the Prophet! Allah has judged America, and we have delivered the judgment of Allah, praise be unto His Holy Name.”
At that, Hanner angrily stabbed the radio power button.
Baldwin twisted in his seat. He noticed he was clutching his cell phone. Great, he had a security blankie now. “Why do they talk like that?” he asked, not expecting an answer. “Like they’re in some ancient romance novel or something.”
Hanner replied, “Because they want to be in a world from 500 years ago.” He sighed, checked his watch. “We should get that food better organized. We slapped it together pretty fast.”
“I’ll do it,” Baldwin said, grateful for something to occupy his hands, and, he hoped, his mind.
“Let me pull over. Queenie needs some private time.”
Hanner swung the Jeep into a pullout on the side of the highway. Both men climbed out of the Jeep, stretching muscles that were tight with tension. Baldwin noticed that the older man had buckled on a holster and pistol.
Feeling his gaze, Hanner said, “It’s war, Mr. Baldwin. War right here at home. Best get used to it.” He opened the rear hatch, lowered the gate, and the dog gratefully scrambled out.
The two men stood side by side, their backs to the empty highway, watching the German shepherd dart from bush to bush, her nose to the ground. “We don’t know if it’s war,” Alec offered. “We don’t know what’s happened.”
“That’s exactly the reason I know it is war. Today, a man can’t run a red light without every loudmouth in the world talking about it.”
As a man with some profile in the media, Baldwin knew the uncomfortable truth of that statement. On another day he would have argued the point, but today, in the growing August heat next to this huge expanse of rolling scrubby plain, the cell phone as useful as a lump of chalk in his pocket . . . today, there was nothing to say. He removed the phone from his pocket and tried the calls again with the same fruitless results.
He turned to the back of the Jeep and began to organize the food. He ended up putting the bottled water and canned goods in their own separate coolers and the dried foods in a third, reasoning that the risk of spoilage would be less that way. He was shoving the coolers back into the rear of the Jeep when Hanner opened the passenger door, reached back and took the box containing the Glock.
“We can spare five minutes for some practice,” the old cowboy said.
That five minutes probably saved their lives.
As Hanner drove, Baldwin practiced loading the pistol and dry firing the pistol. His right wrist ached slightly from the earlier shooting. He had an empty magazine that he fed into the receiver.
“Do it without looking,” Hanner suggested. “Things get ugly, you can’t be looking at your hands or you’ll get your head blown off.”
“Just what was it you did in the military?” Alec asked, looking forward through the windshield.
“Can you keep a secret?”
His hands fumbled with the mag and the pistol, then oriented. “Sure.”
“So can I.” The old cowboy laughed.
The magazine snicked into the pistol. “Have it your way.” It didn’t take him long to find the rhythm of loading the weapon and jerking back the slide. One of the skills any relatively decent actor has to possess is the ability to repeat a physical action without appearing to think about it, especially for film. You had to hit your marks over and over while delivering your lines without allowing the physical behavior to interfere with the emotion of the dialogue. Knowing this made sex with actresses a little disconcerting, if he allowed himself to think about it. Was it real or was it a well-rehearsed performance?
He sighed, letting the unloaded pistol drop onto his lap. “What’s the plan?”
Hanner answered him in flat voice, a voice that carried a new weight of authority and focus. “Gas will get harder to find as we get closer to the big cities. We need to tank up well outside them, at rural sites, if possible. That ought to carry us around the cities. We don’t want to go into any of the larger towns, if we can help it.”
“Until we get to L.A.”
The other man nodded. “Yeah. That might get a touch sporty, too.”
Baldwin mulled on that. He was realist enough to know that many part of Los Angeles were rough, dangerous places; Beirut on the West Coast. Absent law and order and certainty, the criminality of some of the inhabitants would surely spread. He realized he might actually have to use the gun. “Is there a holster back there for me, too?”
“Uh huh, next to the water filtration.” Hanner began to talk the choice of holster, how he’d settled on a standard hip mount, but that everyone developed their own preference and in time Alec would find the rig that was most comfortable for him, whether it was under the arm, cross-draw, or some combination of the two.
As the old man spoke, Baldwin couldn’t help but think, This is nuts. It had only been, what, four hours since he was standing in the tiny airport terminal? In four hours, everything had changed. It wasn’t like someone had . . . died. He didn’t like to even think that word; a superstitious, primal part of him feared even letting the word enter his consciousness. But something fundamental in him had changed. Maybe his illusions had been stripped away, the illusion that he could manage to control anything or keep anyone safe. Here he was, speeding down a backcountry highway in a Jeep with a pistol in his lap while some old spec-ops guy expounded on the virtues of different kinds of holsters. He didn’t know if his daughter was alive. He didn’t know if his home in Los Angeles still stood. Once, he thought he knew about life and the world. Now, he realized, what he might have known before had no bearing on the new world in which he found himself.
He was jolted out of this melancholy reflection when he felt the Jeep slowing. “What’s up?”
Hanner checked both the mirrors, and flipped up the turn-signal lever. “Semi behind us, flashing his lights.” The brief sound of gravel under the wheels and the Jeep coasted to a stop at the side of the highway, engine still running. Alec could sense the presence of the large semi shuddering to a halt behind them.
“Load your pistol,” Hanner told him, not stirring from the driver’s seat, his eyes focused on the mirrors, one hand on the steering wheel, one hand on the stick shift.
Baldwin felt cold suddenly as he reached for the full mag at his feet and popped it into the receiver. “Trouble?” There was a strange quaver in his voice.
“Just want to be ready.” Hanner’s eyes were moving now, tracking something in the mirror. “You watch to be sure nobody comes up on us from the right side of that truck.”
Holy Christ, Baldwin thought, this old bird is serious and he is not screwing around. Alec shifted in his seat to watch the semi, but the angle was awkward. He could actually see better using the mirror. He heard Hanner’s window crank begin to turn. Sitting at an angle like this, his back to the driver, Alec felt deeply vulnerable. Sweat began to trickle from under his hair and down his neck.
The hot wind from outside blew into the car. “Howdy,” Hanner said.
“Howdy!” an excited voice said from outside. “Man, have you heard what’s going on?”
“Just what’s on the radio,” Hanner said. Alec forced himself to keep watching the mirror. He’d have to trust the old ranch hand to watch his back if anything went down. Although he didn’t know it, he was learning his first lesson in warfare. Do your job, and trust that your buddy is doing his.
“I’m hearing CB chatter all, all up and down the coast. Man, the stuff they’re saying is wild. Fires and explosions, A-rabs in the street.”
In the distorted image reflected in the passenger mirror, Baldwin saw nothing from the truck, no movement. He risked turning his head toward Hanner for a moment. “Can you reach anybody in L.A.?” He got a quick impression of the semi driver — a sense of a short, roundish person with spectacles – then turned back to watch the mirror.
“I could try. CB doesn’t have that kind of range, but you never know, it could skip, or someone might have passed something on. Lemme see who answers.” Again, Baldwin had a sense of something happening, a sense of the semi driver walking back toward the cab of his truck. It was interesting, this ability to pick up information without getting it all from his eyes and conscious awareness. It would come in handy, in the future.
“See anything?” Hanner asked quietly.
“Nothing from this side. No other shapes inside the cab.”
“I’m getting out. You hear any shots, you climb your ass into the driver’s seat and haul outta here.”
“The hell I will.”
“The hell you will. You need to get to your little girl.”
“I won’t drive off and leave you on the side of the goddamned road, John.”
It was one of the odder conversations he’d ever had. Both of them, their eyes on their respective mirrors, pistols ready, three-quarters turned away from each other, arguing.
There was a thoughtful silence from the old cowboy. “I’m going to get out first. Then you get out on your side. Keep the passenger door between you and the semi. It’s flimsy as hell and won’t stop a bullet, but it might deflect one.”
As it turned out, none of Hanner’s precautions were needed, although they were valuable training for later. The only thing in the semi was the driver, Mike, and about 40 live cattle in the trailer.
“Nope,” the roundish man said, climbing out of his air-conditioned cab. “Can’t get through. Just wild stories.” He grinned at them. “Say, fellas, I can’t sit here in the sun. Those poor beeves in the back will cook for sure.”
Something twisted in Baldwin’s chest. He wasn’t aware of how much frantic hope he’d put on the idea of talking to someone, anyone, in Los Angeles. Hanner was saying, “Thanks for checking for us.”
“Where you fellas goin’, anyway?” Mike asked them.
“Los Angeles,” Baldwin answered, his throat tight.
“I’m headin’ to Sacramento, myself. You boys want to caravan down there together? Might be, you know, safer for all of us.”
Hanner’s eyes cut over to Alec. He shrugged. “Sure.”
No one knew it at the time, but they’d just recruited the second member of what would become Baldwin’s Brigade. Mike Rydall, from Tampa, Florida. Ever cheerful, faithful, hardworking, he’d die in a successful sabotage bombing of an Emir’s cargo ship.
He’d die smiling.
Hanner passed Highway 85, and stayed on 159. The cattle truck lumbered after them without slowing. Mike seemed to have taken on Hanner as his guide, and he stayed a close, but safe, distance behind them.
They took a circular route around Portland, staying well clear of the main arteries into the city. “Too much chance of getting caught in traffic if there’s a panic. You always want to make sure you’ve got a way out. Have your exit strategy in place before you go in. And if you ever have to park, park facing out.”
Baldwin’s impatience nearly got the best of him. He bit back the angry, frustrated words. Hanner sensed them and said quietly, “It will be faster this way. Longer, but faster.”
Baldwin nodded and looked out the window. It had been years since he’d spent this much time in a car. Most of his travel time had been spent on commercial flights the last 20 years. This seemed so screamingly slow. He looked up at the skies. “No planes,” he said, half to himself.
Hanner slowed, craned his neck to peer at the sky. Iridescent blue, cottony wisps, but no black dots of airliners, crawling like bugs across a huge sheet of glass, no contrails, either. “Grounded,” the old man said, then checked the gas gauge. “We’d better fill up soon.”
They found a small truck stop about an hour outside Portland on a rolling stretch of highway, nearly 30 miles from the nearest small towns. There was a line of cement mixers, gravel haulers, and a few RVs. Hanner and Mike found their own lines and waited for their turn at the pump.
People weren’t talking. They huddled close to their vehicles, paid their money, and hurried away. Baldwin appreciated their feelings. He didn’t have the inclination to chat or waste any time. He wanted to get his fuel and get on the road as soon as possible. Not knowing about Addie was agonizing, like a red-hot piece of pig iron sitting on his chest, slowly burning its way through to his spine. But he’d have to wait. Mike apologetically approached to tap on the driver’s side window.
“I have to water the cows,” he said. “Can’t let ’em get all overheated and whatnot. Wouldn’t be right.”
Surprising Baldwin, Hanner seemed impatient as well. “Goddamn, they’re gonna be slaughtered soon, aren’t they?”
Mike looked even more embarrassed. “Well, yeah, sure. But . . . it’s a long hard drive. No reason to make ’em, you know, suffer. You fellas can go on ahead.”
Baldwin felt a sudden stab of real affection for the simple son of a bitch. The chubby trucker was concerned about the welfare of those poor steers. He wasn’t able to close his mind to the fact they were living, breathing beings that could know pain, maybe even fear. “No, it’s okay, John. We can wait.”
Hanner nodded and climbed out of the driver’s seat. “I’ll be right back.” He strode toward the small convenience store in the center of the fuel pumps. To have something to do, Alec walked over to the semi and helped Mike hose down the cows. The semi driver had an amazingly gentle hand with the hose, careful not to hit any of the cattle in the face with the stream of water, talking soothingly to the animals as he sprayed them down. In the haze of confusion and fear and ignorance that had taken over the morning, Mike’s kindness was like the clear peal of a bell, almost religiously beautiful in its simplicity. In that moment of clarity, Baldwin felt peace for the first time that morning. There was still human decency in the world. Seeing that gave him hope.
By the time he returned to the Jeep, Hanner was already in the driver’s seat, a sheaf of printed maps next to him and the CB radio sitting on the floorboards, plugged into the cigarette lighter. “Took all the cash I had,” the cowboy grunted, gesturing at the CB. And that’s every map I could find for up and down the coast,” he said.
After establishing comms with Mike on channel 12, they started up again. By then, the lines at the gas station had lengthened and cars were waiting on the side of the road. As the Jeep pulled into the road, Baldwin couldn’t avoid seeing the faces of the drivers and passengers in the waiting vehicles. For the adults and older teens, their faces were drawn and stiff. The kids, God bless them, the kids seemed mostly confused by the sudden change in routine.
Hanner glanced at his watch, then handed the maps to Baldwin. “Find us at least two routes around each big city, starting and ending about 75 miles on either side.” The old cowboy fished a pink highlighter out of his pocket, laid it on top of the maps.
Baldwin’s mouth twitched, looking down at the highlighter.
“What?” Hanner said, accelerating the Jeep.
Alec picked up the highlighter. “I didn’t say anything.”
“Fuchsia is easier to see at night.”
Unfolding the map, Baldwin repeated, “I didn’t say anything.”
“All right then,” Hanner said and left Alec to his work.
It was a little like some of the games that he’d played with Addie, connect the dots or find a way through the mazes. He became engrossed in the challenge, and only half-noticed the flash that passed over them about hour later. He was lifting his head to inquire when Hanner downshifted and hit the brakes. The Jeep slewed hard to the side of the highway, but the old cowboy handled it like he was in NASCAR. “Get out!” he barked as the Jeep skidded to a halt. Pointing to the low place on the side of the road, he barked, “Head for that ditch.”
Alec fumbled for his seatbelt. “Bring your pistol!” Hanner told him. It would be the last time he’d have to remind Baldwin about carrying a weapon. Alec swept the maps off his lap, scooped up the loaded pistol, and stumbled out into the afternoon sun. He reached for Queenie, dragged her out by the collar. Hanner, older and shorter than him, was still fleet of foot and had raced back to the slowing semi behind them. The old cowboy leapt up on the running board on the passenger side and was shouting in the window. He sprang clear and ran for the ditch to crouch beside Alec and the confused German shepherd.
As soon as the semi had bucked to a squealing halt, Mike tumbled out of the cab and joined them. The two younger men crouched beside Hanner staring about cluelessly.
“Airburst,” Hanner said flatly, pointing to the south.
“Is that bad?” Mike asked.
“Usually.” Hanner was still staring in the distance. “We should be able to see the edge of the shockwave, if it was close enough. You see it coming, you hug the dirt.”
“What about radiation?”
“First things first, son,” was the answer.
Baldwin caught himself panting. He heart pounded loosely in his chest, like a generator over-revving and about to tear loose from its footings. He made himself breathe more slowly. He’d never been more terrified in his life, and he realized with strange anger that he was terrified about . . . nothing. He didn’t know enough. Should he be afraid or should he be sunbathing naked and drinking a piña colada? He would be goddamned if those bastards would get the satisfaction of knowing they’d made him crouch in this ditch, ready to crap himself with unreasoning terror. Not that the bastards would ever know one way or another, but Alec Baldwin would know. He throttled the terror with a tremendous act of will. “Why is an airburst worse?” he made himself ask, the words shoving past his dry tongue and lips like falling stones.
“Airburst slams us with explosive force. Ground burst sucks up everything nearby, turns it radioactive, and then sprays it all to hell and back.” Hanner turned and gave him a particularly mirthless smile. “Depends on how you prefer to die and how quick.”
That was a question worth pondering, but one Alec would never get around to answering until it was too late. He was distracted by a feeling of warmth on his hip. The warmth grew rapidly to uncomfortable heat. He glanced down. All he had on his hip was his cell phone, but the damned thing was warm. He reached for it, and it was almost too hot to touch. He unclipped the phone, dropped it, and kicked it down the ditch.
The old cowboy turned his head at the sound of the phone bumping along the floor of the ditch.
“Son of a bitch just heated up,” Baldwin told him.
Hanner crawled over to the phone, gently lifted it by the stubby antenna, rotated it for a closer inspection. The rear plate on the phone was swollen and misshapen. He held the phone way from him, scuffed a hole in the ditch with the toe of his boot, dropped the phone in the hole and covered it up.
“I need that!” Baldwin protested. All the phone numbers, the contacts.
“It’s junk now,” Hanner replied. He straightened up, took another look at the distant sky, and spit.
Mike shifted uneasily. “Uh, sir . . . ?”
Hanner extended a hand. “John Hanner.” Mike reached out hesitantly, and the old cowboy pulled the trucker to his feet. He jabbed a thumb toward Alec. “That’s Alec Baldwin. You might’ve seen some of his movies.”
“I don’t watch many . . . what about the airburst, Mr. Hanner?”
“That’ll come later,” Hanner said, climbing out of the ditch. “They’re softening us up.” Queenie scrambled up the bank after her master.
“What happened, John?” Baldwin said, stepping up behind him.
“Somebody hit us with an EMP bomb. Electromagnetic pulse. It’ll fry the electronics for hundreds of miles around.” To Alec, he added, “Made your battery overheat.”
Mike stood beside them. “All electronics?”
“Anything newer than about 1970 or so.”
“Our missiles, then?”
Hanner shrugged. “Maybe. Hard to say. Government’s known about this problem for a while, they might’ve taken some steps.” He opened the door to the Jeep, leaned inside. The keys were still in the ignition. He flipped the radio on, toggled the interior light switch. No response.
Knowing what he’d discover, but having to check anyway, he settled into the driver’s seat, and turned the key. Nothing. No click of starter, no slow whir of engine fighting to catch. It was dead, the hundreds of tiny microprocessors that controlled everything from the ignition to the air conditioning scorched into black carbon by the EMP burst.
Leaving the useless keys dangling from the steering column, Hanner walked around to the back of the Jeep and popped open the hatch. Both the younger men were staring at him. Shit, he thought. Leave these two specimens alone and they’d be dead in a week. ’Course, they could all be dead in a week, depending on who was shooting at them and what they were lobbing across the ocean, but that was out of his hands. “Give me a hand with these chests, boys,” he said.
As they unloaded the Jeep, Hanner laid it out for them as simply as he could. “Maybe the Arabs have hit us in the cities. That’s easy, truck in a car full of fertilizer and medical radioactive waste. But that airburst, this EMP . . . that’s harder. Much higher technical requirements. Some other country decided to take a shot at us while they could.”
Mike, though round and short, was apparently strong as a bull. He took the first chest and lowered it to the ground while Queenie frisked near his feet. “Who?”
“Who knows? Lotta people wanna piss in our cornflakes. Doesn’t matter.”
Alec took the other end of the second ice chest, and he and Hanner set it on the pavement while the trucker lifted free the final one. “Because they’re going to follow it up.”
Hanner took out a cigarette and lit up, even though it was hotter than the hinges of hell out there. “Yes, sir. That’s why we need to get under shelter. It’ll limit our exposure to any fallout from the next bomb.”
“What then?” Baldwin asked through clenched teeth.
Through a thin haze of smoke, Hanner gave him a reassuring nod. “We find a vehicle. Old truck, I’m thinking. Buy it, steal it, and we get to Los Angeles. But first,” he said, looking down at the ice chests, “we take our food and water, and hole up someplace. We can’t help anybody if we’re dead.” Hanner reached into the recess of the Jeep, snagged a ball cap. “You got a hat in that truck, Mike, you’d better get it.”
“I do.” The trucker turned toward his truck. “Say, Mr. Baldwin, could you help me? I gotta let them poor cows out.”
Baldwin took the gun belt that Hanner passed him, and strapped it on. He snugged the pistol into the holster and pulled the ball cap down low over his eyes. “Alec,” he said. “Call me Alec.”
— Roy Griffis is an author of short stories, plays, poetry, novels, and screenplays. © 2015 Liberty Island Media