I decided to hide for the day in this place my parents would take us every year for Christmas; it’s called Roger’s Christmas House. I was happy to see it was still there. Even all the goofy Christmas characters were still in the gardens between the different themed houses. I was trying to decide whether I wanted to stay in Storybook House or the Magnolia House when I ran straight into two people.
When I say I ran into them I mean I literally ran into them. They were both older than me but not really by all that much though they acted like they were. The guy had a rifle but I never figured out if he really knew how to use it or if it was more for show. The girl looked like a cheerleader trying to look like she came from the ‘hood. The guy kinda looked like that actor off of the Verizon commercials that said, “Can you hear me now?”
It took a minute or two to get over scaring the mess out of each other. When we did we kind of circled each other like dogs do when they are forced to get to know one another. Eventually we decided to throw in together for the day since they warned me there had been some men roaming around the area high or drunk or both. They said the men shot off some guns the day before but weren’t shooting at anything in particular.
The guy’s name was Jeff and the girl … his fiance’ … was named Janie. And they were so in love, just absolutely destined to be together. How do I know that? Because they told me over and over and over again. I’ve met “couples” like them before. They tell people just how much they are “in love” to try and convince themselves as much as anyone else that will listen. I never understood that. My mom and dad could get goofy and chase each other around the house and stuff sometimes – which was really, really weird to watch – but the mushy stuff always happened in private and they sure didn’t go around telling strangers they just met about how in lllluuuuuvvvvv they were. But each to his own I guess.
Jeff and Janie; how cute. Jeff was twenty years old and Janie was nineteen and they were students at USF where they served on some pep squad kind of thing to build up school spirit. That’s how they knew they were “fated to be together.” They are just so "in tune" with one another. Gag.
I was starting to get really hungry and they looked really hungry too. Then Jeff’s stomach growled and it was so loud we all jumped. I don’t know what was funny about that but we all three laughed so hard I got scared someone was going to hear us.
I hate it when people call me “kid” but I guess Jeff was going through an old-man phase and asked, “Kid, you had anything to eat recently?” I told him not much. Then he asked me if the water in my water bottle was any good. I told him it was wet and left it at that. Janie turned into “the mom” as said, “Look, we’ve got some powdered soup but not any clean water. You share your water, we’ll share out soup.”
Turns out not only did they not have any water for their soup, they didn’t have anything to fix the soup in either. And they were calling me kid?!
Jeff did have a lighter which meant I didn’t have to use mine but he couldn’t build a cooking fire for nothing. I asked him if he’d ever been in scouts and he said no. I looked at Janie and she just shrugged. I was so hungry I didn’t care at that point so I built the fire, heated the water, and cooked. It was just chicken noodle soup but man oh man was it good.
The sun was climbing and I knew I needed to get some sleep if I was going to be worth anything so I started looking around for a place to hide. Jeff and Janie got the picture, left to go find themselves som privacy, and we all turned in for the day. I was up and packing for the road when I started getting hassled. I thought it wasn’t until you turned twenty-one that your annoying adult gene activated.
Right off they said I should go with them because I was young and needed someone to look out for me. Yeah right. I had a feeling if I hung with them I’d wind up being servant girl to the lovebirds. Besides they were going to the coast where Janie’s parents had a condo. I kept saying “no thanks” while I wrapped a couple of Christmas ornaments my mom would have loved and tucked them into my backpack where they wouldn't get broken when Jeff told me something that almost convinced me to go with them after all.
Apparently there had been some type of nuclear threat against the US. They weren’t for sure, it was only rumors that had come over the radio. They say that someone had bombed a couple of the big cities. Then a panic started that MacDill was one of the other bigger targets on the list to get bombed and Tampa and the surrounding cities emptied out as fast as people could get out.
I thought about that for a second and then asked them if that was true where were all the cars? Apparently this had happened over a month and a half ago and when all the people got on the road flu and dysentery and all sorts of gross stuff started happening to the refugees. The military and national guard were called in by the governor and the cars were hauled off if they weren’t willingly moved. There wasn’t a lot of fuel by then so people were stuck where their car gave out. The rural communities couldn’t absorb them all and people started shooting each other for food, fuel, and medical care. And there we had been complaining that the Xbox wouldn’t work in the warehouse. Guess that was the real reason why they took away the TVs and claimed the radios didn’t work anymore. I wouldn’t have wanted to deal with a bunch of panicking kids that no one really wanted either. It also explained why we had guys in uniform watching us instead of social workers.
Even though what they told me had been happening worried me I decided to stick with my plan. They weren’t too happy when I told them. They acted like I was being ungrateful that they were willing to take me on. I nearly rolled my eyes but told them how nice it was of them to offer, especially since they didn’t know me, but that I was set on my own plan. For just a second Janie looked like she wanted to make me do what they said but there wasn’t really anything they could do. We parted ways and I got out of there just as fast as I could. I even cut through some backyards and trees to throw them off just in case they were following me.
I really hoofed it that night and made it all the way to Floral City and by the time I got there I was so tired I could barely see straight. Floral City used to be an important place but that stopped way back around World War One if you can believe the plaques in the historic district. Maybe it was getting important again because I could tell there were people in this town. Even though it wasn’t daybreak yet I could hear people moving around in a couple of the buildings, especially one called the Heritage House Bed and Breakfast.
I got out of there as fast as I could but the only place I could find to hole up was a shed out in this old orange field. There were still a few oranges on the trees that sat back a ways from the road, but only a few. I grabbed as many as I could carry and ducked into the shed via a piece of loose plywood that covered a hole in the building’s siding. The shed didn’t have any windows but light filtered in through a couple of holes in the roof; and it wasn’t really a shed but an old well house.
I ate the oranges even though parts of them were drying out. I didn’t have any choice after I ate but to use the corner furthest from me as a bathroom so I dug the best hole I could with the heel of my shoe and then filled it back in so the smell couldn’t get out. I curled up behind the big water bladder and tried to get some sleep.
I slept several hours and had a hard time waking up. I didn't really wake up all the way until after the sun had started sinking. I was hot and thirsty and knew I was getting bad off because I had already had to put a new notch in my belt to keep my jeans from drooping. I also knew I only had two days of water left at the most. But I wasn’t going to be able to do anything about it in Floral City, too many people around.
I had to wait until way after dark to make my escape and nearly got caught by a dog. Luckily it was still used to people and more curious than territorial. It was the first dog I had seen in a while and I wanted to stop and love on it so bad but knew I couldn’t take the chance. Not quite two hours later I passed a brown sign for the turn off to Ft. Cooper State Park and just beyond that was an airport used by those airplanes that use props on the nose. I started noticing that I was getting out of “farm country” and back into a place where houses crowded the road; lots and lots of houses. That’s when I saw the sign “Welcome to Inverness.”
I hadn’t gotten very far but I knew that I had to find some real food or I was going to get sick. My stomach burned like crazy when I tried to eat another orange before I started walking and the idea of eating one of the two last fiber bars made me want to puke. And I was already tired enough to go back to sleep. I had to find some food and that meant breaking and entering.
I didn’t like it and I got the shivers thinking about what my Dad would have said if he knew but I didn’t feel like I had any choice. I got off of the highway and started working my way through the subdivision on the west side of the road. All of the houses near the road were trashed and picked over; one had even had a fire in it. A couple of them did look like they were still lived in even though they were in pretty sad shape. I nearly turned around until I noticed someone chalked an “X” on the door at all the houses that were trashed and empty. The further into the subdivision I went the fewer X’s there were. Finally by the time I got to the way far back area there were hardly any X’s at all.
I decided to carefully check one of the houses in a cul-de-sac that was kind of set back off of a street that itself was set back. I heard a dog barking but it was far away. How far off I didn’t know because sounds carried funny when there weren’t any other sounds to compete with. The mosquitoes nearly drove me nuts as I crawled through the tall grass to get to the back of the house I had chosen. I found no broken windows or doors but there were no signs of life either.
I couldn’t risk making a bunch of noise so I pulled out the bolt cutters and chopped off the doorknob. I was lucky there was no keyed top bolt on the backdoor. And lucky for me too was that when I finally managed to get the doorknob off it fell on my foot and not on the stoop. I hopped around for a second waiting for my foot to stop hurting then I stuck my big honking Craftsman screwdriver in the neck of what was left of the doorknob and finally got the bolt to pull back out of the door frame. I was beginning to realize that God must have had a purpose for sticking me with Aunt Wilma and Uncle Charlie after all. I’d sure watched him pull this same stunt with the bedroom doors often enough.
The backdoor opened onto the garage and I was surprised as heck to find a car in there. Everything was covered with sandy dust. The only tracks I saw looked like they had been made by lizards or palmetto bugs. It smelled really funny in the garage, kind of like spoiled food. There wasn’t enough light for me to see so I decided to risk a quick look around with the flashlight. I cupped my hand over the end of the light and only let out enough so that I wouldn't kill myself tripping over stuff; good thing too because there were big plastic tubs stacked all over on the side of the garage that was supposed to have been where a second car could fit.
And there, hanging upside down from the ceiling, was something that made me feel really, really, really dumb. It was a bike. I could have been riding a bike this whole time. I wanted to beat my head against the wall. I was so mad at myself for not thinking of it sooner. I hadn’t seen any bikes before now, not even at the school, but I hadn’t exactly been looking for any either. And this bike had those wheels that would hold up on either concrete or on dirt. The ding blasted thing even had those saddle bags that college kids use to carry stuff on campus.
I didn’t have a chance to be mad long though because I was getting dizzy from all the blood rushing to my head. I looked a half a minute more and noticed a stain on the ceiling so had to tell myself to be careful in case there was a plumbing mess upstairs.
The door from the garage into the house was flimsy and all I had to do was stick my screwdriver between the doorframe and the door and lean on it a couple of times and the door practically popped right open. When I walked through the door I found myself in a neat little utility room. On the other side of the utility room was a clean but dusty kitchen that opened up to a family room on one end and a formal dining room on the other. I had more sense than to open the refrigerator but it was a close thing. I guess old habits really do die hard. The first couple of cabinets I opened had pots and pans and dishes in them. Then I got to a cabinet, opened it, and just had to stop and stare.
It was like looking at a grocery store shelf. Everything in there was all nice and neat with cans and boxes all matched up for size and kind. If the house hadn’t been so dusty and smelling funny I would have sworn up, down, and sideways that someone still lived there. There was a box of trail mix granola bars in one of the cabinets and I tore into one real quick and ate it too fast. I almost threw it back up but was able to stop by taking slow, deep breaths through my nose.
I grabbed another bar but decided to wait for the first one to settle before I opened it. I looked through the rest of the cabinets and it was like Ali Baba’s cave. Whoever had lived there even had the good mac-n-cheese; the kind with the squeezy cheese instead of the powdered cheese. They went cheap on the beanie weenies though and gotten the store brand.
Instead of the granola bar I decided on a can of beanie weenies but first I needed to find a bathroom. There was a half bathroom downstairs but it looked like it was in the middle of a renovation because the toilet was leaning against the wall and the bathroom fixtures were all sitting in a box on the floor.
That left upstairs. I was hoping there was a bathroom or I would have to go out into the tall grass and I did not want to get mosquito bit in an uncomfortable spot. I went up the stairs and the bathroom was in working order if you didn’t count that there was no water in the bowl or toilet tank. I sprayed the handy can of air freshener around to hide I had been there. Since I was upstairs I figured I'd take a look around.
The first room I hit was a little kid’s room but there were boxes all over the place like it was being packed up. The next room was an older kid’s room and it was nearly all packed up except for the Jonas Brothers and Taylor Swift posters on the walls. I opened another door and found a linen closet. When I opened the last door I knew I wouldn’t be eating the beanie weenies. I was heaving and heaving and barely got to the bathroom to throw up the granola bar.
I’m no wuss. I've cleaned up puke by the bucketfuls and dirty sheets by the ton. I saw a lot of kids die in the warehouse and had to help put them in body bags so they could be taken away. But I’d never seen anything like that before and I hope to never again. There was a woman on one side of the bed. He must have caught her when she was sleeping. There was a guy in pajama bottoms leaning up against the bed with a shotgun propped up around where his face should have been. They’d been dead a long time, long enough for most of the smell to be gone but not long enough to be mummies. The worst was all of the roaches crawling all over everything in that room.
I dared myself to go back and close the bedroom door and then I stuffed a towel along the floor to keep the bugs from crawling out. I ran back downstairs, forgetting rule number four, and nearly broke my neck on the stairs. When I picked myself up at the bottom I had to stop and tell myself that there was nothing to be scared of. There were no such things as ghosts or monsters. Those people up there were either in Heaven or Hell and either way it wasn’t my business. I still tied a bandana around my nose and mouth because one way or the other I didn’t want to join them any time soon.
I went to the garage and got the bike off of the rack and set it by the outside door. I went back inside to the kitchen and started pulling all the food out of the cabinets and taking it outside. I loaded the saddle bags with everything I could use and what didn’t fit in the saddle bags I put in a wheelbarrow. I was going to take straight off but decided to take one last look around the garage before I did.
Looking was easy. All of the tubs had labels on them and there were two tubs that I had to stop and examine. One was labeled “hurricane supplies” and the other was labeled “camping gear.” The stuff in the hurricane tub was useless. None of the flashlights worked and there were no batteries. There was probably some inside but I didn’t want to spend a lot of time looking for them. The plastic lantern was cracked and was too big and heavy. The collapsible water jug had a split in it.. The only things I took out of that tub was a small wind up flashlight/radio combination thing and two boxes of waterproof matches.. The camping gear box was a lot better.
There was a tent in there but it was too big and heavy so I skipped it.. There were a couple of those expensive sleeping bags that are really warm but can still smoosh down into a small bag amount the quarter size of a bed pillow and I took the one that wasn’t dayglow orange.. There was a zipper bag that had one of those fancy backpacking stoves in it and a couple of little thermos looking bottles that were labeled stove fuel and lucky for me the directions were still in the bag. The best thing next to the stove were two Katadyn water filters, one for hiking and one called a gravity filter. I knew what those were because that’s what we used when we were building Sparkleberry Ranch and didn’t have electricity to the well yet. The only other thing I took was a flashlight that you stuck to your forehead with a big elastic hair band and one of the mess kits. Anything else would have been overkill and I was majorly pushed for space as it was.
When I had everything packed the best I could and had changed my mind a bunch of times about what food to take and what to leave behind I went inside and got a couple of kitchen rags and a hot pad – cause bandanas don’t really work no matter what they show in the cowboy movies. As I was walking out I spied a few more water bottles. I had to stick them in a plastic grocery bag and hang them on the handle bars but I wasn’t leaving them behind. They’d get used up soon enough I figured and better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.
There was still a bunch of food left in the wheelbarrow even though I’d taken all the store packaging off the food I picked to take and packed it in Ziploc bags. I knew the people that had lived in that house wouldn’t need it anymore but it still felt a little bit like stealing. To try and make things a little better I pushed the wheelbarrow around the corner and into the middle of the road so that somebody would see it sooner or later and then went back and put on the backpack and climbed on the bike.
I’m so glad no one was around to watch me figure out how I was going to get on the bike and get going. I hadn’t been on a bike in a long time and this was one with one of those skinny seats on it and the handle bars down low. I finally got going but I was wobbly for nearly an hour until I could find a rhythm that didn’t make the back pack shift from side to side and didn’t make the water bottles knock me in the knees.
But the one thing the bike did was give me a sense of freedom I hadn’t had in a long, long time. I had to stay on the road but that was OK; it got me out of Inverness quicker and once I was passed Inverness Regional Shopping Center I was back into a long rural stretch. I only got as far as Arlington, FL but I didn’t mind, that’s probably as far as I could have hiked on foot even if I had gone at it all night.
I pulled over at the Lakeside Golf Course and hunkered down for the day in a shed behind the club house. I didn’t bother unpacking anything because I was so tired. I made myself eat some cold ravioli and drink a bottle of water and then I covered my new bike up with a golf cart cover and then climbed under the tent it made and went to sleep.