combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 04 Number 03 Summer ©Jul 2006

A Long Way Home

Everyone who survived remembered where he or she was and what they were doing. October the Sixteenth, at five forty p.m., a little more than three years after Hurricane Katrina demolished New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. A cold front had come through two days previous and there was a light north wind.

The nation had decided to keep daylight savings time in effect year round, but by mid-October dark set in near six in north Alabama. Anna was having a full body scan at the dermatologist's office on Monroe Street in Huntsville; the staff was already locking up the building while Anna lay unclothed and helpless on the table. She could hear the buzz of excited voices outside the room and let out a sigh of relief when the doctor popped his head in the door.

"Go ahead and get dressed, Anna – something's happened." He turned to speak to a nurse hurrying by, then disappeared.

"What – what happened?" Anna said to the empty room. Feeling a sense of urgency she scrambled into her clothes – jeans and sweater, tennis shoes, and fortunately a light jacket.

"Everybody, get your vehicles and go home," a loudspeaker commanded. "There's been a terrorist attack – at the Parkway Mall in Huntsville – some sort of gas dropping people inside and around the parking lot – and another attack near Tuscaloosa."

Huntsville and Tuscaloosa? Anna thought. Not Birmingham or Nashville?

Anna Carey was a widow in her early fifties with two married children living in Dallas. She remembered the attack on New York and even Kennedy's assassination. She remembered how unbelievable the devastation was following Katrina. But Huntsville was her home!

By the time she got outside, Anna saw the last of the staff roaring away. She had parked on the side of the building. She walked hurriedly to where her car should have been. There was a pile of broken glass on the pavement and nothing else. "Good Lord! My car's been stolen!"

Anna's heart sank. Here she was, in downtown Huntsville without a car and nothing but the contents of her small purse. The street looked deserted; most of the offices were already closed.

Her cell phone had been in the car too.

Is this how it's going to be? she wondered. Everybody thinking of themselves and their personal priorities first, ignoring those of others? Leaving a woman alone in a parking lot at nightfall?

Home, she thought. I want to go home. But how?

She moved back and pressed her body against the wall of the building. She took a deep breath. I am going to walk home, she decided. It will be difficult, but perhaps I can find help on the way. I even know the path I'm going to take. Avoid the parkway, go over the Washington Street overpass and get to Meridian Street. There's a service station with a food mart near the corner of Meridian and Oakwood.

North. Of course I must go north. My house is well north and west of the doctor's office. There's a north wind; it will blow – whatever – away from me – yes! And the mart is even farther to the north and west. I just hope I'm in good enough shape.

Count your blessings, Anna, she thought. Bless the tennis shoes and the jacket. It's already getting cold. She looked around uneasily. She liked to use cash for shopping; she had about a hundred dollars with her. She reached in her purse, and taking out $50.00, stuffed it in her shoe.

The overpass – she felt so exposed. And out of breath already from the climb! A couple of cars whizzed past, paying her no attention. Once she got to Meridian Street, she could hide in the shadows.

There were no street lights, just a half-moon. A beautiful sky – oblivious to the kind of day that had transpired. Anna walked two hours to reach the gas station. There was a light shining inside, but a middle-aged man was locking the front door.

"Please," Anna yelled. "Could you wait a minute? Let me buy some bottled water and peanut butter or cheese crackers?"

She considered asking him for a lift, but he seemed too gruff and – and big. "Lady, make it snappy. We're under a curfew."

She nodded and grabbed the items. Then she thrust a ten-dollar bill into his hand. "Keep the change," she muttered.

Walking quickly, Anna rounded the corner to Oakwood. She saw with trepidation there were a half dozen men standing around a few yards ahead. Ragged blue jeans, scraggly beards. One of them looked her up and down grinning.

Anna hesitated.

"Hey, lady, got any money?"

She shook her head and turned away.

The next thing she knew two of the men were on either side, holding her arms. Another ran up and grabbed her purse.

Her jacket sleeve ripped at the seam. "Please, take the purse. Don't –"

"Shut up." A fourth man slapped her, hard. Then he hit her with his fist. She sagged.

Dimly, ears ringing, she heard a far-off siren. The men holding her dropped her arms and ran, leaving her on the pavement.

She got weakly to her feet, the siren sound fading in the distance. But the men were no longer in sight.

Why aren't there more police out anyway? she thought. Her jaw ached, but she was fairly intact.

She slunk along in the shadows, afraid of running into more violence. It was eleven according to her watch by the time Anna got to the place where Oakwood went beneath the Parkway. Not the underpass where the homeless hung out – that was much farther south.

I'm getting tired, she realized. I don't think I can keep going all night. There's old shopping centers at both corners on the west – dilapidated buildings – all I have to do is cross the street; there might be a doorway where I can rest without being seen.

There was a covered entrance to a large discount store. But to her dismay a man was already sitting there. She started to back away just as he looked up.

"Charlie!" Anna exclaimed. "Is that really you?"

He rose to his feet, as startled as she.

"Anna? My God! What are you doing here on foot at this time of night?"

"I could ask you the same thing. My car got stolen outside the doctor's office on Monroe Street."

"You walked here all that way?"

"Since about five thirty. I'm exhausted. When riding in a car you just don't realize how far it is to walk the same distance."

"Then sit down here by me, lady," he said. "Three of us fellows had dinner together and they dropped me off here. They were supposed to pick me up an hour ago. But they didn't show."

Anna sat down, grateful to find a friend, especially a male friend. "I suppose you know what happened?"

"A little. An attack – here."

"And Tuscaloosa. No telling where else."

"Tuscaloosa? No! My wife was scheduled to leave Tuscaloosa for Birmingham around six."

"Oh, Charlie –"

Anna didn't know Charlie's wife well, but she had known him for years. They ran into each other often, having a lot of common interests. They both sang in a couple of choruses, both belonged to poetry groups. He was attractive to Anna, but she ignored that, having too high a moral code to interfere with a married couple.

"Anna – do you think she's dead? My wife?"

"We don't know much of anything yet, Charlie. But I do know one thing. You can't go back to your house. It's south of that mall. Right in the path of the gas."

"I guess you're right," he said glumly.

"Come home with me," Anna suggested. "My house is on a dead end street, out of sight of traffic. Nobody'll notice it; we can keep a low profile. It's a long way, but if we pace ourselves ...."

"Jesus, Anna! I'm sixty-two years old!"

"We've got to try." She paused. "I just hope my dogs will be okay. Did I ever mention I have two dogs?"

"What kind of dogs? Are they housebroken? They'll be upset if they can't get outside."

"That's not a problem. I have a dog door and a run. I'm more concerned about them getting hungry. Finnish Spitz like to eat."

"Finnish Spitz? ... never heard of 'em."

"They're grand. A pretty gold-red color. Alert and watchful, but it's unusual for them to bite. I have a male and female."

"Anna, why don't you put your head on my lap and try to sleep a little?"

"Yes," she murmured. "Good idea. I'll think about my dogs. Faramir and Goldberry. So sweet ..." her voice trailed off.

The cold concrete awakened her around four. Charlie's head lay back against the wall; he was snoring with a soft wheeze.

She shook him. "Wake up, Charlie. We need to get started."

They got to their feet, brushing a few dead leaves off their clothes. "Damn," Anna said, wincing.

"What's the matter?"

"Blisters – on my heels."

"We'll look for drugstores – somethin' else happen to you? Your jaw is swollen and your cheek is bruised. Didn't notice in the dark. We'll get some ice too."

"I got mugged. They took my purse, but I have more cash in my shoe."

"I've got some cash too. Which way should we go?" Charlie asked.

"Doesn't Oakwood go through to Pulaski Pike?"

"I think so."

"Then we go west on Oakwood. As soon as it runs into Jordan, we turn north and walk until we get to Plummer."

"That's a few miles, Anna."

"I know that. But there's lots of service stations. Might find some Band-Aids – and more bottled water and snacks. Food will boost our energy."

"Maybe there'll be news ..." he said hopefully. "I don't think there'll be a newspaper – the office is on the parkway close to that mall. But someone may have a radio."

They walked steadily without talking. Boring except for the constant need to stay alert. It took two hours to get to Jordan. They didn't see another soul. Anna's heels were sorer than her face.

"Anna, aren't you getting hungry? I am."

"First food mart we see, Charlie. Thank the Lord I'm well stocked on bottled water and dog food at home. We don't know how long – I mean, even if we should eat anything fresh or not –"

"There – there's a service station." They approached it cautiously. It was open, but a bearded man sat behind the register with a rifle over his knees.

"No looting," he commanded.

"We have cash," Anna replied. "We'd like to buy some food and water."

"Fine. But I'm not taking my eyes off you people."

Charlie picked up a six-pack of bottled water while Anna selected more cheese crackers and a couple of bananas. She didn't know when there'd be another opportunity, but they had to travel light. "Grab some Gatorade too, Charlie. Oh, good, antibiotic Band-Aids."

"Make it quick, you hear?"

"Could we have a bag? Here's the money."

A loud crash and the sound of glass breaking from the back of the store startled both Charlie and Anna, freezing them where they were. The bearded man jumped up and began firing in the direction of the sounds. "Run, Charlie," Anna gasped, grabbing the bag.

They ran until they were out of sight of the store, then slowed down, breathing hard. "Jesus," Charlie complained. "We didn't do anything, Anna. Why did we run?"

"Because, Charlie. You're too nice to understand what's happening. That man wouldn't have hesitated to shoot us next. He wasn't rational. This isn't a rational situation."

They heard the wail of sirens. "Now the police show," Anna said.

"There's a discount store." Charlie pointed. "Let's eat something."

The store was closed, but they sat against a side wall, out of sight of the parking lot. Anna handed Charlie crackers and a bottle of water. "Wonder if the street lights are still out?" she said. "I want to find a radio somewhere. We need to know what's happened – if there have been more of these things going off in other states. From the deserted streets, I suspect it's bigger than just Alabama."

Charlie fingered his package of crackers and peanut butter. A tear rolled down one cheek. "Anna, you seem to have no doubt as to what you want to do. Get home. Live. I'm not so sure. I don't know where Catherine is; I don't even know if I care whether I live or not."

"Don't think that way, Charlie. There has to be a reason we survived."

A bit cheered, he opened his water and food. "You working right now, Anna?"

"Not till November." Anna worked a seasonal job for a gift shop. Charlie was already retired. "Wish I had my sunglasses," she added. "It's high noon. I'm dying for a Coke, but I think the inside of my cheek is cut." She looked glumly at the hole that had appeared in the toe of her new tennis shoes. That morning she had been pleased with her outfit – jeans, a red sweater, blue tennis shoes with red stripes, a blue jacket. Coordinated.

Silly, she thought. Charlie may have lost his wife and I'm upset about my new tennis shoes. Wish they were sturdier.

They started walking again. "I'm afraid to go behind stores or houses," Anna said. "That's a good way to get ourselves shot. But we're too open, too obvious. Let's cross the street – we can get more cover in those parking lots."

Another siren. A police car pulled up behind them and stopped.

"Anna! They're after us!"

"Lord." She turned to face the policeman getting out of his vehicle.

"What are you two doing? Show me some identification."

Charlie reached for his wallet. "Officer, what's wrong? Curfews aren't in effect till dark, right?"

"Are you aware of what's gone down? Everyone's been asked to stay in unless it's an emergency. Then you should be behind a wheel."

"S – sir," Anna stammered, "I left the doctor's office as it closed and my car was stolen – along with my cell phone. Mr. Davis here wasn't picked up by his dinner companions. We don't know much about what happened. Please, could you give us a lift to a service station near Plummer? Maybe we could call somebody."

"All right. Service stations and food stores are allowed to open during the day." He nodded toward the car. "Get in back."

"Maybe we can find out more now," she whispered. "From his radio."

"Hell, I'm just gonna ask him," Charlie said. "Officer, what's the latest? We know Huntsville and Tuscaloosa got hit."

"It's worse than that. A lot of southern states – Longview, Texas; Shreveport, Louisiana; Hattiesburg, Mississippi; Macon, Georgia – mostly malls. We think they infiltrated from Mexico."

Charlie looked at Anna, frowning. "Can you tell us where in Tuscaloosa?"

"The east side."

Charlie turned a dead white. "Anna – Catherine –"

"Mart's open," the policeman broke in. "Pay phone's right outside."

"Thanks," Anna said, grabbing Charlie's hand. He trembled as they approached the entrance.

"Charlie, let's get our change out and I'll call everybody I know in Madison."

They had no luck. "Inside," Anna motioned.

An elderly man was on duty. Somewhere there was the sound of a child sobbing. Anna nodded at the man and started scouting for needed items. "Mister, there's a little girl on the floor by the cold drinks," she told the clerk.

The old man scowled. "That kid's been here for hours. Her so-called uncle went to the restroom and never came back in."

Anna was shocked. "Why haven't you called somebody?"

"Ain't my business. She's gonna have to leave at dark when I close. No room in my truck, neither."

"Charlie, that child couldn't be more than five."

They walked back. "Honey, what's your name?" Dark eyes blinked at her. The child held up fingers dripping blood.

"What happened to your hand?"

"Escee – escee –"

"You mean escalator, like at the mall?"

"Uh, huh. My aunt took me. She told my uncle to take me home."

Oh, my God, Anna thought. "Honey, do you remember which mall?"

"Uh, uh."

"Was it nearby or downtown?"

She shrugged. "I was 'posed to get a new dress."

"Where do you live?" Charlie asked.

"In my neighborhood."

Charlie looked at Anna and shook his head. "What's your name? We need you to tell us your name."

"Judy." She wiped her eyes.

"Well, Judy, let's go to the ladies' room and wash your hand." By this time Anna was almost in tears herself.

She soaped the child's hand thoroughly, relieved the cuts didn't look serious. Then she used some of her Band-Aids for the little girl and took her back inside.

"Judy, this is Mr. Charlie and I'm Miss Anna. We're going to take care of you until we find your aunt or get you home. Is that okay?"

The child nodded, brown curls framing a pert, elfin face.

"Ready, Charlie? Let's go."

"What about the curfew, Anna?"

"The heck with the curfew. Plummer Road is mostly woods. Nobody's going to see us."

"I don't see how we're gonna make it, much less with a kid," Charlie muttered.

"We"re going to make it. It's just going to take some effort. Anyway, we have to. I don't remember that cop offering us a ride, do you?"

Every time Charlie started to falter, Anna was distracted from her own fatigue. Nagging him made her feel better. He's making me angry, she realized. I want to hit him.

They started out, Judy between them. "We'll do our best to keep you warm, Judy. First time we stop, we'll eat something," Anna said, feeling the sweetness of the soft hand in hers. How could anyone have abandoned this child? she thought.

There was a cemetery on a rise off Plummer. "A grand place to spend the night," Charlie declared.

"Against the fall of night," Anna murmured.


"An old science fiction title, Against the Fall of Night. This cemetery made me think of it, with all the trees around it, like a barricade."

After they ate cheese and crackers and drank some water, they used their jackets for Judy. Anna had grabbed lollipops at the last minute; Judy seemed soothed and soon fell asleep.

"Anna, I don't think we have to worry about this little girl having been exposed to anything. The time she spent at the mart doesn't match when that attack happened. She must have been at the other mall later."

Anna agreed. "She's doing fine. We're not far from Indian Creek Road. It runs into Blake Bottom! We can follow the creek to my neighborhood. That would be safer."

"A long ways to that creek, Anna."

"Charlie, it's a long way home. But it'll be worth it."

"Don't take this wrong, but since we've both used our jackets for Judy, I think we should huddle when we go to sleep."

"Yes, Charlie. Listen – where the heck is the National Guard?"

"Probably at the Arsenal and the Nuclear Plant."


A drowsy Anna thought how wonderful it felt to have a man's arms around her again. She wasn't sure the exact moment the feeling turned into desire. She almost wished Judy wasn't with them. Shame, she told herself.

An hour later she was still awake. Rocks are poking into me, I know it, she thought. There isn't a lot of grass; the rain from the cold front must have washed some of this hill away. At least the shade kept the ground from hardening too much.

"You awake, Charlie?"

"Yep. I'm gonna look around, see if I can find something we can use to help."

He came back with a couple of unused garbage bags.

They each lay on one. Anna sighed, wondering how Judy could sleep. Finally Anna took the bag out, and rolling it into a pillow, stuffed it under her head. Better, she thought.

She dozed off and on, but it was still dark when she gave up. Now Charlie was asleep.

She brooded for a while. I think my heels are already infected, she thought. She opened a bottle of Gatorade; before she finished it, Judy whimpered and sat up, rubbing her eyes. Charlie stood awkwardly, cursing.

"Why don't you two go on ahead, Anna? I'll follow if I can."

"No, Charlie. We'll go slower. We need you for safety. Here, drink the rest of this sport drink. It'll help."

Plummer Road inclined upward to Indian Creek; to take her mind off her aching legs, Anna talked to Judy. "Honey, did you live with your aunt and uncle?"

"With my aunt, Miss Anna. Uncle visited."

Anna groaned mentally. "Well, did you and your aunt live in a house or apartment?"

"In my neighborhood. We only had one bed, so sometimes I had to sleep on the couch."

"How about school? Did you go to school?"

"No, Miss Anna."

"Any pets?"

"No, Miss Anna."

"Well, when we get to my house, you'll meet my dogs. I think you'll like them."

"Ooooh! Doggies!"

I don't think this child had a very good home, Anna thought. Wonder if I could foster her – when things settle down.

Judy did well, considering her age. She didn't complain about the walking, the skimpy food, the cold – not once.

A treasure, Anna thought. Could I care for a child at my age? I have a house, a good seasonal job with flexible hours and a wonderful boss. Yes, she thought. I think I could foster her, and later – well, she was abandoned. There may not even be a natural mother.

The street lights had come on well before the three of them reached the creek. You just can't believe how far this is when you're in a car, Anna thought. Huntsville is so spread out.

"Charlie, look! We're at the creek. Finally! Judy, think you can slide down this hill with us holding your hands?"

"Uh, huh."

They hiked north along the creek. It was very late and getting colder, but Anna still insisted on avoiding street lights.

"Look, Anna. It's beautiful, the water. Low and slow and quiet because it's October. So peaceful. Wish we could stay – right here. Under these maple trees and pin oaks." He was breathing heavily.

"It's cold and muddy, Charlie, but I'm glad you think it's pretty," Anna whispered. They were in her subdivision. "We'll have to go through some yards – my house doesn't back up to the creek."

Charlie groaned. "I don't think I can go another step. I don't want to go another step."

"Hush. We have to take care of Judy. But I don't think walking for exercise is going to be my idea of fun after this."

The sight of her dog run made her throat hurt. The dogs started barking immediately. "There's a hidden key near the front door," she said. "I imagine there's a lot of yuk in the dog run by now."

Light shone on Charlie's shoulder's and Judy's curls as Anna opened the door. "Power's on," she said with satisfaction. "Charlie, why don't you turn on the TV while I find us something to eat? There's a radio on the bookshelf, too."

"Cable's out, Anna," he called, a moment later. "I'm trying the radio."

"Judy, how about grits and scrambled eggs?"

"Oh, yes, Miss Anna!"

Anna cracked eggs into a bowl, beat them, got out a skillet for bacon. Then she went to let in a couple of frantic dogs. "This is Judy," Anna told them, and the child sat on the floor hugging each in turn while they licked her face and wagged their tails.

"Message machine's going crazy! My children! Thank God they don't live near Longview. Stay here a minute, Judy. I've got to call them."

Anna left bacon sizzling and water heating and ran to her bedroom.

"Laura? I'm fine! No, really! My car was stolen and I've been walking home all this time. Listen, do me a favor. I've got two friends here who need to eat." (Anna wasn't ready to mention the word "child" yet.) And we've been in these clothes – yes, yes. Call Jeremy for me. I wasn't anywhere near it, baby. I'll fill you in tomorrow. Promise."

An expletive sounded from the living room. "No survivors on the highway leaving Tuscaloosa." Tears were running down Charlie's cheeks.

"Here's a notepad – write down numbers of people who might have heard from Catherine. Let me turn the stove off."

Anna gave Judy her plate and fixed one for Charlie. "I'll start calling – you try to eat."

"The extra bedrooms are ready," Anna said, after starting Judy's bath and finding her an old T-shirt to sleep in. Meanwhile Charlie had taken over the phone calls.

"Betty Eastman said the police found Catherine in her car with her identification. They don't want us to come down there yet, but she's dead. Oh, Anna, she's dead." He looked up at her. "I think I expected this, Anna – the whole time."

Anna took Charlie's uneaten plate away. "I'll heat you up something later, Charlie. How about a hot shower?"

He nodded and she showed him her bathroom. "I don't have clothes to fit you, but I have a big Terrycloth robe. Throw your clothes out the door and I'll wash them, along with Judy's."

Then Anna went back to the other bath, helped the child dry and put her in the T-shirt. Feels like having a family all over again, she thought. "Darling, I have a room for you and even a couple of stuffed animals I keep for my future grandchildren. Here, how about I tuck you in with this bunny?"

"Can I have a dog too?"

"Tell you what. We'll leave your door open a bit and one of them might come and get in bed with you. Okay?"

"Okay, Miss Anna." Her eyes were already closing.

Charlie refused to eat after his shower. He stopped outside the guest room door, looking pensively at Anna. She reached up and kissed him. He kissed her back with desperate hunger. Then he shoved her away.

"Charlie – it's not wrong," Anna said. "Catherine's gone."

"I can't, Anna. I just can't. I need to be alone." He shut the door firmly behind him.

Anna sat up finishing the clothes. She let the dogs out briefly, then had a shower herself. Finally she took some Tylenol and turned down her bed. Faramir and Goldberry settled at the foot. Anna listened to the radio long enough to hear the curfew was lifted and all the food supplies would be checked. Her water was safe. Continual updates would follow.

I'm going to have to call Children's Services and arrange something about fostering Judy – and do something about a car, Anna thought dreamily, appreciating the feel of her mattress and blankets.

Tired as she was, Anna had to suppress her suddenly awakened sexual desire for a while. Then she slept.

Sometime during the night she was aware of Faramir wandering into Judy's room. Good boy, Anna said mentally. You're a jewel.

The morning sun lit up Goldberry's fur; she cocked her ears and woke Anna with a soft bark.

She threw on a shawl. Judy was still sound asleep, but Faramir followed Goldberry and Anna as they passed Charlie's room. The door was ajar, the bed tousled and empty. She found the note in the living room.

"Thanks for everything, lady. But I can't, you understand? So, Anna, my friend, I'm saying goodbye. Just leave it be, okay? Just leave it be."

Charlie, she thought sadly. I'd look for you if I could. But I have to consider Judy now. I'm not taking her where I'd find you. Not to the creek to see your body floating in it. Because that's where you are, isn't it? I wish you'd stayed with us. Judy and I would have made you want to live again. I know that, but I guess you didn't.

Oh, Charlie.

by Mary Brunini McArdle
... who is a freelance writer of fiction, nonfiction, poems, and plays, with numerous awards and extensive publication credits; she has also taught poetry and military strategy at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

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C O M B A T, the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones