TIME SPIKE – snippet 13:
Two days later, Andy, Jenny, Rod and Joe sat inside the cafeteria sipping their one and only cup of coffee for the day. Knowing that coffee would be gone soon made it taste all the better. According to the head cook, the kitchen was stretching what they had as far as they could. But stretching it or not, six days from now the black brew would disappear from the face of the earth. Never to be seen again, probably, at least not in their lifetime.
“We’re getting behind at the infirmary,” Jenny said. “We have to have some help with the cleaning. Those floors and cabinets haven’t been washed down since the Quiver. And with only four of us, we don’t have the time. The guard you’ve loaned us spends most her time working as a medical assistant. I can’t spare the time for her to do a little cleaning. As for Barbara and Lylah, they’re putting in fourteen-hour days just caring for patients. There’s no time left for the grunt work. And without it, we’re going to start getting epidemics.”
Andy nodded. The kitchen had already asked for a few prisoners to help with their workload. So had the project managers. “Okay, I’ll start sending a few prisoners to work, but I hate to. I can’t spare the C.O.’s to make the situation safe.”
Jenny chewed her bottom lip for a second then said, “I have the prisoners’ charts. Let me go through them and then give you a list. Not everyone here is psychotic, after all. I can give you a list of those who aren’t in for violent crimes, or at least the ones I don’t think are dangerous.”
Andy nodded, although he was skeptical. The guards never saw the charts, but they always knew the reasons for a man’s incarceration. And that rumor mill was probably more accurate than the official tags. “Okay, but keep in mind that most of their convictions were after the plea bargaining stage of our justice system. What you see may not be what you get. And try to find some first timers without juvie jackets. They’ll be a little easier to deal with. Especially if they haven’t been here long.” He shrugged. “After what Collins wanted, I hate to pull any of the prisoners out to work the prison, even if it was their job before the Quiver.”
“Is Collins going to be a problem forever?” Hulbert asked.
“Probably,” Andy answered. “There’s always one. And I guess he’s ours.” He debated gulping the last few ounces of his coffee, while it was still hot, tasting like it should, or sipping it. Making it last as long as possible. In the end he sipped.
“He was transferred here from upstate. A problem child. Not enough to get him fired, but close to it.”
Terry Collins was almost six and a half feet tall. Thin, athletic, and full of venom. Andy had seen his record. He had been in a half dozen confrontations with prisoners in the six months since he’d come to Alexander. Each time the prisoner had been the one to cross the line first, but experience had taught Andy that six was too many, in that period of time. Way too many. Collins had to be starting it. Or, at least, not defusing the situation.
Defusing was what the guards were supposed to do. Men were not locked up in maximum security prisons because they had a lot of self-control. They needed help keeping themselves out of trouble. And rumor had it Collins had trouble with that one, himself. The stories circulating about him and his ex-wife, if true, were evidence of it. The fact that the man was divorced wasn’t unusual. But rumor had it when his wife left she skipped state. She took the kids and ran.
“It sounds like this Collins character would be an element in a lawless society. A dangerous element.” Jenny looked at Hulbert and Joe sitting across the table from her and Andy. They both nodded.
“We just have to be sure we’re not lawless.” Andy could feel another day, another headache, coming on.
Hulbert grinned. “Oh, there’s no danger of that. We’ve got a library full of legal books. We have nothing on agriculture, but we have lots of law.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not so sure that’s the type of law we’ll be needing.” Joe had tried to make a joke out of it, but the truth in what he said made the comment hang in the air instead of blowing away with a smile or chuckle.
Hulbert stared at his empty cup. “You’re right. We’re not ready for slick lawyers and loopholes and technicalities. We need strength. The people are scared. Hell, we’re all scared. We either give the guards what they need, or they’re going to look for someone who can.” He nodded toward a small cluster of men sitting at a table in a corner of the cafeteria. Those were the men who had stood next to Collins at the last meeting. “Each time one of the cooks says we’re out of something new, that little group grows. One can of vegetables at a time. And Collins knows it. He’s just biding his time. Waiting on our first emergency.”
“I read once that no country is more than three missed meals from a revolution.” Jenny shrugged. “I guess we’re talking truths. And it doesn’t hurt to say out loud what everyone else is thinking.”
Hulbert reached across the table and patted her hand, then smiled at Andy. “Okay, we won’t let them miss any meals.”
“How?” all three of them asked at the same time.
“We already have exploratory expeditions going. They’re doing the day-trips, gathering everything they find that might or might not be edible. Let me lead a few hunting parties that don’t have to be back by nightfall. Give me three men, unlimited access to the armory and make my time my own. I’ve talked to the scouting parties. There is plenty of wild game out there. In a week’s time, two at the most, I should be able to get us enough meat to run a month or so. After that I can keep us stocked through the winter.”
“Meat’s not enough,” Jenny said. “We need grains and vegetables. We’ve had a few people outside the walls looking, but they aren’t bringing in enough. The last trip didn’t net a bushel basket full.”
“I know, Jenny. I was there when they came in last night.” He drummed his fingers on the table, looking at Collins’ men. “I’ve spent two-thirds my adult life playing the weekend survivalist. I guess all those years of learning what’s edible and what’s not is about to pay off.” His face lost all signs of emotion. “Let me get the protein, then I’ll take a handful of people on foraging parties. From what little I saw while outside the walls, I think I could teach a small group of a dozen or so people to find tubers and other edible plants. They wouldn’t have to go far. It could be done with the same type of day trips we’re doing now. I didn’t recognize too many of the plants, but I did recognize a few general types. And they were high in carbs, vitamin A and E. I also saw a couple that should give us our calcium and plenty of C.”
She nodded. “Okay. That’s good. But there is something else, and I hate to say it, but I’m going to. You guys have been great. But…”
Jenny wasn’t the type to be lost for words. “Just say it,” Andy said. “I don’t think the four of us can worry about what’s politically correct. At least not for right now.”
“Actually, that’s the problem. We do have to worry about it. And we have to worry about it now. Not later. Rod wants to take three men with him. Not three experienced hunters. We can’t fall into that trap. When the work gets divided up into men’s work and women’s work, we lose. We have to keep things focused on experience and who’s good at what. Gender and color has to stay out of it. Otherwise we’re dead in the water. When the hunters come back, if a woman provided part of the food, women retain their value.”
She wasn’t pleading, but her voice had an edge. “People respect strength and brains. But if women aren’t given a chance to show off the things they know and the strength of character they have, then they lose it. We all lose when women become pets to be cared for. And later, to be kicked.”
Hulbert shrugged. “Okay, you’re probably right. I know quite a few guys I wouldn’t trust not to mistake me for a buck, even if I was wearing hunter orange, which I won’t be. But no tokens. That’s almost as bad as not allowing a minority to participate. Stories about screw-ups get around even faster than those about successes. And they’re never forgotten. If there’s a woman on grounds who wants to go, and has the experience, real experience, I’ll take her.”
Jenny grinned. “That’s not a problem. Her name is Marie Keehn. She’s no token. She’s a fisherperson and hunter from way back. Took her first bear up in Canada when she was fifteen. She showed me a picture of it. She also told a story. A little tacky for mixed company, but what the hell.”
Jenny dropped her voice and leaned closer to the men. “Marie and her family were up in Canada, hunting. They hadn’t been able to find anything their entire trip and it was their last day. She had started her period that morning and her father’s rules were, if she was bleeding, she couldn’t hunt. The smell, which humans wouldn’t even notice, would attract any wild animals in the area. Well, she was young. So, she decided not to tell anyone. She went to her bear stand; her brothers went to theirs. It turned out, her father was apparently right. Her period did seem to attract the local wildlife. She was the only one who took a bear that trip and she’s never told any of them about her secret bait.”
Hulbert was laughing so hard he spilled the last of his coffee. “My God! I’m in love! I want to meet this woman.”
“I’ll tell her to come see you.”
“You wouldn’t happen to know when she’s suppose to come around again, would you?”
Jenny stood up to leave. “Ask her yourself.”
Andy jogged to catch up with her. “I think you made Hulbert’s day.”
“I’m glad someone’s happy.” She slipped her hand into his and gave it a squeeze. “What I’m going to tell you won’t be so good, Andy.”
“It never is.” He rubbed the top of his head, applying as much pressure as he could along the temple areas and across the top.
She handed him a small white envelop filled with aspirins. “I figured you would be running low by now. Some of your headaches are caused from tension. But I’m betting some of them aren’t. You’re off all sugars now. And your caffeine intake has dropped to one cup of coffee a day. Caffeine and sugar are both addicting. And withdrawals from them include headaches.” She gave his hand another small squeeze. “If you feel irritable, exhausted or develop diarrhea, don’t be surprised.”
“At this point in my life, nothing can surprise me. Now, what’s your bad news?”
“We’re going to lose about one hundred prisoners within the next month or two.”
“What?” Andy stopped walking and stared at her. “That can’t be right.”
“A little over one hundred of our prisoners have health problems that will cause them to die within the next month or two if left untreated. And I don’t have the means of treating them. I’ve run out of their meds.” Jenny pulled her hand from his and started walking again. He followed a half step behind her.
“One hundred,” he whispered. He had known this was coming, he just hadn’t realized how many were going to die.
“Yes. But the numbers are actually worse than that. Over the next year, maybe two, we will lose five hundred. Diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney failure, heart failure, transplant rejection, and liver failure are going to cause us to lose about half of them pretty fast. My guess is at least seventy within the next two weeks. Another thirty the following two weeks. Tuberculosis and hepatitis will kill the others within the next year, maybe two. Then things will slow down a little. But over the next five years, we will lose our inmates with AIDS. The grand total when we’re done will actually be close to one thousand.”
She slowed her pace, giving them a little more time to talk before reaching the infirmary. “This is not an estimate. I’ve been going through their medical records. Speaking of which, we should suspend those rules. At least you and Joe and Rod should start looking through the convicts’ records. Sooner or later, you’re going to need to start paroling some of the prisoners. You’ll need to know everything you can about them.”
Andy set aside her last suggestion. She was right, but that could wait. It was her medical numbers he needed to digest. One hundred prisoners would be dead within two months, five hundred within two years, and a thousand within five years. That was just under half the inmate population. The horror of that was followed by quiet panic. “What about the guards? How many of them are going to die?”
“Relax. It won’t be nearly as many. Most of them are healthy. Healthier, in fact, than the American population as a whole. They’re younger, on average, and they have to take a screening physical to get the job. Prisoners, on the other hand, are far unhealthier than most people, especially the kind of prisoners you get in maximum security facilities. There are a lot of reasons for that. Some of it is simply because they generally come from poor backgrounds, and ‘poor’ and ‘unhealthy’ are almost synonyms. But some of it is more personal. They run more heavily toward addictions than most people, and addicts are almost always unhealthy. And even if they aren’t addicted to anything, as such, they usually come from dysfunctional families and don’t have much in the way of self-discipline. Their diet is likely to have been as bad as you could ask for since they were infants.”
She shrugged. “But, whatever the reasons for it, the fact remains that the health of many prisoners is really lousy. As for the C.O.’s, we have a few on blood pressure meds, a couple on heart meds, one on insulin. They may have other medical problems I don’t know about, of course. Unless they come to me asking for help, I have no way of knowing.”
He nodded. “What are we going to do with all the bodies? We can’t possibly bury them.”
“No.” Her tone was flat, almost emotionless. “We couldn’t. We don’t have the manpower. We’ll have to burn them. Preferably on raised platforms because of the smoke and the odor.” She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, as if blotting out a memory. “I’ve seen this before, Andy. If we screw it up, we’re going to be in real trouble. We can’t afford an epidemic on top of everything else.”
Real trouble? Seen it before—epidemic? Andy had wondered more than once about Jenny’s past. The nurses at the prison were good at their job. And they had nerves of steel or they didn’t stay. But even so, Jenny wasn’t a typical prison nurse. She was one least a cut above the average. What she knew, how she carried herself, the way she stayed one step ahead of everything, none of it was typical. And the control she kept on her emotions was unbelievable. He had seen her cry several times over the last few days, but her tears didn’t cause her to loose control. She would be crying one minute, giving orders the next. Medical was the best-run department in the prison and she hadn’t been there long enough to draw so much as one paycheck. All three nurses plus their guard had sleeping areas. They had work schedules with a priority listing that let them get things done that used to take eight people.
“There are a couple of things you need to know. I took Woeltje off tower duty, permanently. That knee of his is pretty bad. He was wearing a brace when the Quiver hit, so that helps. But he is to do zero stairs from today on. You also have to take into consideration how far he has to walk each time you assign him. And he can’t be posted someplace that requires standing for long periods. He has to be able to stand, sit, and even prop that leg up on a regular schedule.”
Andy nodded, then braced himself. Jenny might be unusual in a lot of ways, but she was also predictable. She always saved the worst for last. Always.
“We’ve admitted Kathleen to the infirmary. She’s on complete bed rest. I’m going to induce labor if the baby doesn’t move in the next twenty-four hours.”
“It hasn’t moved much since the Quiver came. And it should have. I’m still getting a heartbeat, but it’s weak and irregular.” She shrugged, and he could tell she was working at keeping her voice steady. “This close to being born, the baby needs to be moving on a regular basis, and its been twenty-four hours since …”
Andy’s headache went from a dull throb to a knife cutting, anvil pounder. He had to close his own eyes.
“You need a shoulder?” she asked.
“Yeah. Yeah, I do.”
She hugged him and laid her head against his chest for a moment before walking into the infirmary. But this time, instead of tears, he thought he felt a soft kiss.