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When If and Then Becomes Now

29th January 2020
(Short Story)

In general, she didn’t have the best track record with men. Could she even call two failed relationships a track record? Signy wasn’t sure. So she decided that part would never matter again. Ever! She had her daughter Rowan and that was all she needed. Ever! She managed her “Never Ever” well for almost 14 years. The problem with emphatic statements is that our selves usually at some point rebel against them wholeheartedly.

The year she turned 40, Signy’s boss told her they were hiring a new guy for the office’s open position. She had been beyond skeptical. It wasn’t that she was necessarily circumspect of the new guy himself, just that she would have preferred to work with another female in the office. Well, that wasn’t completely true, Signy was leery of all males.

She blamed Ryan. Her husband, okay her ex-husband, had told her he was leaving, sent her divorce papers and had never been heard from again. She had always thought he would have at least stayed in contact with Rowan. He had been so in love with his little girl, all dark eyes and dark curls. No one she knew of had heard from him again.

Their office was close quarters and men she didn’t know tended to make her nervous. She truly wondered how long she would last at her job working in total discomfort. Now though, well now it hardly mattered that she had even done that job. What mattered now was that there had never been that level discomfort, never any level of distrust.

“The first few weeks could have been so rocky,” she wrote in her journal almost a year later, when it was safe, “but they weren’t. He understands where I’m coming from without me saying everything and he helps me let the trivial things go. Together I feel that we can actually make it out of this, sanely. We have the balance of being able to be in the quiet or create our own noise. He has a sense of humor and wit that have made the days not just bearable but almost enjoyable, even through the chaos and loss.”

She often got lost in her memory, an easy past time right now. Best of all, from her standpoint was that he had often indulged her in her favorite game of “If and Then”. That was how this all started as Ellis poured them both a coffee and she set out their breakfast that day. It had started in jest. They had been joking. IF, then. Now it seemed so very silly.  If, then.

“You want to play?” he asked, knowing full and well she did.

“Always! Which topic?”

He looked bemused for a few seconds, finally proposing, “Food crisis? Or general government collapse?”

“Oh, going for the big topics then! This is how I know that it is definitely not a Monday!”

He grinned over the top of his cup, “Touché!”

 “So, what if we rolled them together into a government collapse and then foreign takeover with widespread power outages?”

“Are you a secret prepper?” he genuinely asked.

“No, but sometimes I think about it. I do have a knack for food storage and general preparedness tendencies.”

“Right. Okay so if the end of the world as we know it comes, then we get the kids…” he trailed off, but she picked it up.

“And the dogs, of course!”

“Yes, and the dogs. Okay so if you do the food then I’ll handle the guns and ammo.”

“Sure, sure. Deal. Besides with the three dogs we’ll have more food.”

Ellis was aghast, “I could never!”

“I’m not sure we ever really know what we ‘could never’ until after. Besides, cooked like bulgogi would you really notice?”

“I could never!”

“Yes, but you did just tell me I’m in charge of food. And it is more food, meaning we would last longer. So I’m saying it IS an option. Not an option either of us would willingly use for a long time though.”

“I could never!”

“You say that now but, well, it beats starving! So, we’ll see how long you last!”

Ellis bit out, “We can see how long you last!”

She shook off his retort with one of her usual answers, “Sure, sure.” They grew quiet as they both took bites of food instead of words.

“Of course, there is wild game first.”

“Yes, you and the guns will have something to do. But when there is none, we are not feeding the dogs all of our grain and oats.”

“I have a huge bag of dog food. Wait are you being logical again?”

Signy laughed, “Me, no, just practical. You take down the game and we all eat. We can barter with the skins, the dogs get the bones, we stew a lot! It is going to be a lot of hands-on hard, hard work.”

“Water may be a problem.”

“I know a place, actually I have a couple options for that. Water may not be an issue. Granted, we’ll have to leave town.”

“It won’t technically be safe in a town anyway. We would do better away from here.”

“I mean, I realize you’re the guy, but you really can camp right? That wasn’t something you just said?”

“Yes, I can camp.”

“Without an air mattress and fluffy pillows and all that jazz?”

“Yes Ma’am! I mean, I like my air mattress, but yes. What about you, can you camp without all that stuff?”

“Yep! I think I cut teeth camping! And I didn’t truly meet a ground pad I liked until last year. So yes, I can camp without all that jazz.”

“Can you hike?”

“Why, are we out of gas? Surely one of us has gas!”

He grinned at her, “Hey, I laid off the beans and cabbage last night!”

She laughed. “Fine, fuel then! Surely one of us has fuel and Ryan left the hoses, gas cans and pump, so we could siphon if we needed.” Signy took another bite of her breakfast, mulling something over deeply. Shaking her head to clear it, she finally answered the actual question. “Yes, I can hike. Though I might not be able to keep up to the pace you are used to or prefer. Last time out, with a fully loaded pack, I think I was only good for 15 miles a day, but that was fresh and well fed. And we would have the dogs, which I perceive would slow us down a little.”

“That’s not exactly fast.”

“No, but hopefully we would have a car, and not have to hoof all of that.”

“So what are our assets?” he asked.

“Well that depends, doesn’t it, Mr. Rhetoric?”

“On what?”

“Really on how many guns you are willing to barter, and how many guns or how much ammo deadweight you would want me to carry if we do have to pack it.”

“Ammo isn’t deadweight!”

“Right, but I am somewhat realistically, physically limited, I’m only good for about a 45-pound pack and that is if it is well balanced. Also I was figuring you were going to have me carry most of the food staples.”

“What are you considering staples?”

“Same as you, only different!”

“Woman!” he exclaimed in exasperation as they got to work for the day.

~~~The Newest of Nows

Signy paused in her recollections and focused on the task at hand. Today they were pruning back the six fruit trees that were on the property. It would give them a better harvest; it would also provide a different wood for smoking their meats. One added bonus was that they would in turn help to nourish the soil by returning the ash to the tree roots.

Ryan had once told Signy this property could save her, and when his dark curly haired little one came along, he deeded the property to Rowan. Aside from the small amount of taxes it had taken yearly, Signy usually forgot about it. But it was there to save them now. With its three-bedroom cabin, natural springs and forty acres of mixed woods adjoining one of the largest National Forest areas in Missouri, it had indeed done that.

She was thankful for these trees. He had found them not long after they got to the property. She had been right in what she considered staples and what he considered staples being different. But these trees were a bonus. There were three apple trees, two peach and one apricot tree. Even more thankfully the apples were all different, but the trees needed each other. She had studied the one apple a long time ago and knew it was a triploid tree, requiring two other trees for pollination to give a productive crop. Not only that, but the apples from that tree lasted a long time in cold storage and the flavors benefited from it.

She had found a few other things on the property that might be food come early spring. New and different ways to cook things without electricity was still the problem. There was a bit of an issue with berry identification out here, but wildlife was still abundant. The two books she had insisted on had both come in handy and earned the pack space she was willing to afford them in her initial assessment, even though they were able to use the car. They had learned so much from both books related to the plants and trees around them and how to field dress the animals they did catch.

They were running out of some of the things she considered staples, but there were other things. They had figured out how to roast and grind down the hickory, acorn and walnuts into a flour. The hickory nuts could also be roasted and turned into an almost coffee. It was passable. It allowed them to save the coffee they did still have for special celebrations. And they were resourceful together. Most of all they were together, for Ellis had successfully extracted not only Cecily, his 12-year-old, but also Rowan, who was now 17 and two of her friends.

Signy mentally drifted back again to making a list of her ideas for staples countered against what she knew they had used, as they hauled the wood back towards the house. Cash, gold, water, seeds, knife, gas, salt, rope, coats, sleeping bags, tent, tea, Benadryl, comfrey, green salve, baking soda, needle, thread. And then she was again at their second conversation, after knowing that very similar events had indeed brought them to their “Now.”


“Do I really need to list all my staples for you?” she asked as she opened all her cabinets, gleaning what she really might need. He was making lists. They had agreed to her house first in case Rowan showed up. And if they finished, they could leave her a note. No one knew what had happened to all the school age children. Cecily lived with her mother, and it was assumed if the kids were sent home, she would be there.

“Maybe not.”

“You do have some cash, right?”

“Very little.”

“Great. Kevlar?” she asked.

“Yes.” He wrote it down on his list.

“Kevlar for me?”

“Maybe.” He put some kind of notation out beside it.

“Maybe?” she asked having known it was a stretch.

“Well, you are shorter and wider in places.”

“Um yeah, thanks, I think.”

“You have cash?”

“Some, not tons. You have a water purifier? Mine busted out two years ago and I didn’t replace it.”


“Well there is that then. That should help diminish the amount we have to carry at once. I’ve an internal frame I love, but I think I should use the external frame that was cut for me. If you go down on a trail, it will be my only way to get you out. Although, it may fit one of the kids.” Her Rowan was already taller than Signy.

“You think I’ll fall?”

“I should hope not, but you know, contingencies, in this case, are better to have. I’m the one that is more likely to twist an ankle.”

“Yes, true!” he said.

Signy wasn’t sure if he was replying to the contingencies or her ankle part of her comment. She went on though, “No tech?”

“I don’t know. It is hard not to say that it won’t all come back. Maybe phones and chargers. No laptops. Back to Mach 1 ipads for you.”

“That’s funny.”

“You can go old school if you need to?” he knew her outlet was journaling and writing. He also knew she usually did most of that on her computer.

“Yes of course. All the trees in the world can be writ upon.” But since he had brought it up, she disappeared for a minute, returning with a fresh journal which she threw on the couch. She grabbed a new set of pens and pencils too. “And if needed, I can make some paper. Paints and darkening agents and charcoals all work too.”

Moving to her rather expansive bookshelves, she took down two books. “There are deer, squirrel and fish, where I have in mind. And if we are fast enough, cows.”

Ellis said, “I don’t know if I can take down a cow. I’ve never actually taken down anything though I have fished.”

“Easier than deer. So I’ve been told. I am going to request that I get to take two books for this.”


“Yes, at minimum. They clearly are a bit weighty; I’m not sorry either.”

“It’s your pack.”

“Yes, but I’ve never field dressed a cow or deer either. I have only read about it. Rowan did with some family friends once, but she had help. And of course, she isn’t here.”

“How exactly are we going to preserve cow?”

“Well, hmmm. I guess we will also have to take all the salt we have. Or wait until winter and build an old fashioned, underground icehouse.”

“Why salt?”

“Jerky. Wait, that is awesome, I just remembered we have a hand grinder.”

“I don’t like jerky.”

“I don’t think you are going to have a choice. If we jerk most of the meat, it will keep longer. For us and the dogs.”

“I have a 50lb bag of dog food.”

“That’s great but with 3 dogs that is like maybe 5 weeks.  We might eek out about 9 weeks if we ration them well. You know if it comes down to actually packing it, dog food would just be dead weight. Besides, if we are able to jerk a cow then I can rehydrate and stew it later. Thankfully there are springs where we are headed too. If our luck holds, we can get all that done quickly and then move to phase two or three, possibly even canning a whole cow which might be the only other way to preserve enough for us for the winter.”

“You have thought this through!”

“Just conceptually, yes. You got the ball rolling for me that day.”

“Did you know this was coming?”

“Like a thief in the night or labor pains,” she cryptically replied.

“What do you mean?”

“It was bound to happen sooner or later. I’ve felt like something was going to happen for a while now. So, contingencies.”

“Contingencies.” He looked at her and could see that even though she was in assessment mode, her courage was hanging by a thread.

“Pull up your newest, clearest photo of Rowan and let me take a picture of it, then I’ll put one of Cecily on yours. In case. Are you already in low power mode?”

“Yes,” she said as she handed her phone over. He turned her camera on and a picture of Cecily on her phone. “What do you think happened to the kids?”

“Are you worried now?” he asked as he handed her phone back to her.

“Yes of course. It doesn’t make sense. So I can go into this mode of planning, or I can try to figure out what happened.”

“Will you give me a few days?”

“Sure. How many do you need?”

“Four. Let me do some reconnaissance?”

“Okay. Four days. But you’ll leave me armed first?” he could hear the nervous creeping into her voice.

“Yes of course. Though it doesn’t seem bad here yet.”

“It doesn’t. Do you want to just stay here?”

“No. Things and supplies won’t last here. And it doesn’t feel right.”

“Are my feelings rubbing off on you?” she almost smiled at him.

“No, I own my own. But glad you feel the same. Solidarity in the contingencies.”

“Yes. When will you leave?”

“For reconnaissance? In the morning I should think. Let’s run to my place and get you armed. You’ll be okay?”

“Yes. Can you leave me one that doesn’t have a safety though? I would hate to forget to turn it off.”

“I can do that. But I would be happier leaving you two: one with and one without. Are you sure you’ll be okay?” For the first time he moved to touch her shoulder, though they had known each other and been working together closely for eight months.

“Yes. What will you be searching for?” she met his gaze as she asked.

“What have we always searched for? Answers.” He tucked a long loose strand of her hair behind her ear, as if it was the most natural thing to be doing. “The truth. I guess I’ll see if anyone knows where any of the kids are. And I’ll see if anyone has any other gas or supplies that I can barter out for now. I’m not sure how long cash will be legal tender. I’ve half a mind to turn it all into coffee and rice.”

“If you can barter or trade out for 10 gallons of gas, my car will get us close to 4 hours from here. If we did that we could pack a bit heavier and get a lot further.”

“Just 10 gallons?”

“Yes. It’s only a 12-gallon tank. And I filled up two days ago. So I’m still basically full. Of course, you could try to fill extra gas tanks too. Do you think it is safe to even take the main roads?”

“In this part of the country, I think so. Especially if we are fast. It is definitely safer than being on foot, despite your intense desire to camp right away.”

“So if you try to get that much, we can get where I think we should go and easily back here again. I think this is going to last for years.”

“Me too. But I have to try to find answers about the kids. You know?”

“Yes, I want the same, well, maybe beyond that. I want my kid back. But also I want something for them to come back to.”

“Will Rowan know where you’ve gone? If you aren’t here?”

“Yes, we talked, and if she thinks of it, she will know. It was always in the plans. For us to both try to get there.”

“You know you were light years ahead of the game.”

“I never hoped to be. It just always came from playing way too much ‘if and then’.”

“Okay, give me four days. If I’m not back in five, be sure to head out in the car as far as you can get.”

“You will come back?” she asked sinking into his arms now.

“Yes. Tru..”

She cut him off by stepping backwards so fast she almost fell down, “NO. Don’t say it now. You’ve never had to say it to me. Please, don’t start now. It’s how I always knew that I could. Please.”

“Come here. You’re shaking.” 

“You can’t say that!”

“I didn’t. I won’t. But you know.”

“Yes. I’ve never understood, but I know. I’ve always known.”


“No but yes.”

“Then we understand one another?”

“Only if you want us to.”

“No more if and then?” he asked.

“No more if and then,” she said. “Because then is now.”

He pulled her back so that she met his eyes, “Five days and you go? Promise."

“Yes. And you will be back here?”

“Yes. If not before.”

~~~Before the Newest Now

Ellis had made it back in three days, injured and with new scars but with both their girls. Cecily had been easier to locate but harder to extract. It was where his injuries came from, but if you asked him every scar was worth it. Two bonus teen boys were in tow, Rowan’s friends. She had hidden out on her schools’ auditorium catwalk for two days with the boys. Her school had been evacuated and was empty when Ellis found them. The teens were able to relay to Ellis some of the plans they had overheard.

Ellis had given Signy back her hope, something that seemed to be growing scarce. They had quickly learned that everyone over the age of 50 had been forcibly removed, but no one seemed to know where. Everyone under 18 had been confined at their schools initially. Clearly since Rowan's school had already been evacuated, the new regime's plans had moved them already. From what the teen had learned possibly to militarize with a young army. With no one at their own homes, both boys were more than happy to stay with Signy and Ellis when they left.

In this version of their now, they would make it. Together. On the land Ryan had left for Rowan, they all thrived, learning and sharing almost everything including with three very well-fed dogs. In fact, the only thing Ellis ever hid from Signy was his discovery of a man’s body, deep in the woods at the back of the property. A watch on the man's wrist bore the inscription "Love, Signy." As they had done with so many of the bodies of the elders they had found, he buried it and the memory of it. He was not willing to play the game any longer. There would be no more if and then. This was his now.

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My cup of tea and a great book: what are two things that never last long enough?
I love almost all literature & research & tea,
except for self-help genres & bowel studies & yerba mate!
And seriously, only picking three "types of books I was interested in" just stressed me out a bit, so please know that isn't the entirety of the scope I love.