Jacob tried to sleep. His watch was in fifteen minutes, and he hadn’t slept a wink. But the thought of Julia, alone in Charleston…
That’s a stupid thought, he mused. There’s over two-thousand people in Charleston. She can’t possibly be less alone. She’s probably the least ‘alone’ person in all of Appalachia, possibly the whole of America. Be honest: you’re less worried about her and more selfish about yourself.
Here he was, shivering in a ratted sleeping bag beneath an equally-ratted tent on the road to Summersville Dam. The night of Christmas Eve. Naturally, he’d drawn the short stick for dam patrol. Of course he’d drawn the short stick. Larkin always had a stick up her ass when it came to patrol orders, but maybe this time she had a point calling for double duty. The raiders that came down from Pleasant Valley the day before were anything but pleasant, and chose a fine time to hit the city. And who knew when more would be back. Every able-bodied Responder was on high alert while everyone else in the valley tried their best to stay optimistic.
That Christmas, the engineers chopped down the biggest tree they could haul, raised it in the center of the capitol building rotunda, and, with help from all the children and orphans, decorated it with tinsel, electric lights, and as many unbroken baubles as they could find.
Even with the threat of limited medical supplies and food, a meager supply of bullets and weapons, and the constant pall of danger from the mountain, the Responders and all the people under the care could forget that the bombs had dropped for at least one night. Food would be plentiful. Cake and cookies, whiskey for the adults, Nuka-Cola for the kids. Presents would be passed around, working appliances, toys, tools, and scavenged cigars. Then, at midnight, Christmas carols followed by a long winter’s nap.
And Jacob was chattering his teeth out on the road to nowhere without a single hint of season’s cheer.
“Fuck,” he growled, turning over. He waited two minutes more to see if his core would flare to life. It did not.
“Fuck it!” he shouted, scrambling out of his sleeping bag in a frozen rage. By the time he’d flailed his way out of the tent, he’d already turned into a solid. He bitterly pulled and tied his hood over his head, bending down to retrieve his hunting rifle. At the same time, the ammo in his loose pocket fell to the ground; at least he’d remembered to put the seven-round clips inside a bag this time.
Jacob then heard the deep chuckle of Kuznetsov some meters away.
“Found a snake in your sleeping bag?”
“Don’t laugh at me, Kuv,” Jacob said, his voice cracking and his rifle barely hanging from his shoulder by the strap. “How the hell do you stand this cold, anyway? You don’t even have a hood.”
At first, the old man did not answer. He inhaled the last of his Tortoise and threw the cigarette butt to the ground.
“Where are you from, Vickens?” he asked with his thick accent, blowing addictive comfort into the air.
Jacob lifted his rifle to check the action. Naturally, it hadn’t been oiled in some time. But neither had any gun in Charleston’s arsenal.
“Beckley,” he said.
“Aye. But where are you really from?” Kuznetsov said with a lilt in his voice.
Jacob frowned and sighed. He’d been partnered with the old man for a week or so, and he found Kuznetsov a quiet but sturdy individual. Jacob wondered if he had been a Commie sympathizer before the War. Not that it mattered anymore anyway. Warming his fingerless gloves with steaming breath, Jacob regretted the fact that no one in the US ever needed to design a gun that worked with mittens.
“New Mexico, if you must know,” Jacob said. “Santa Fe.”
“The desert boy stuck in the freezer,” Kuznetsov said with a chuckle, a small grin forming behind his bushy mustache.
“Hah hah,” Jacob replied with a roll of his eyes. “Laugh it up. Besides, if I didn’t tell you, you’d keep digging.”
“You know me so well.”
“So where are you from, huh? Somewhere cold, I’ll bet. Moscow or something?”
The old man shook his head and adjusted his hat.
“Hah, Moscow. I love Americans,” he said. “So ignorant about every country besides their own.”
“That’s because ours is the best one out there,” Jacob said with a smile, leaning on his heels.
“Now there’s a fine patriot.”
It was silent for a moment, wind whistling through the trees. Even then, the ice and snow created an echo chamber of the visible quarter-mile.
“Well, russki?” Jacob said. “Are you going to reveal your mysterious origins?”
Kuznetsov eyed Jacob for a moment. He couldn’t tell, but Kuznetsov appeared to be judging whether Jacob was worthy of that piece of information.
“Kiev,” Kuznetsov said at last.
Jacob’s brow furrowed.
“Keeve? Where the hell’s that?”
Kuznetsov folded his hands in front of him, perhaps restraining them before they became fists. Jacob could never tell if the man wanted to give him a hug or strangle him.
“Ukrayina,” he replied. After a moment, he added, “Ukraine, to you.”
“Ukraine, huh?” Jacob asked. But then something clicked. “So you ain’t a russki after all?”
“Niet. But I might as well be, since no one could tell the difference after the invasions. I left Kiev with my wife in ‘45. Back then, you don’t walk the street with less than three people unless you like being mugged. We come to America hoping it would be safer here. It was not. I was attacked many times because of my accent. Our home was broken into many times.”
“Damn,” Jacob said. “Did you call the police at all?”
“And what would that do? I’d go to prison for accusing red-blooded Americans for assaulting a Communist. I would disappear, like many of my neighbors.”
Jacob nodded. His face then darkened.
“It wasn’t right,” he said. “I knew it wasn’t right, but I couldn’t say anything. In high school, I’d always hear about some jock being scolded just because they wore a red jacket, or some girl saying something the teachers didn’t like to hear. A Korean kid in my class was taken by policemen in the middle of my history lecture sophomore year. Turns out his whole family was shipped somewhere. He wasn’t a commie at all, he just looked Chinese.”
Kuznetsov was silent.
“I was always the joke at SF High, too. I’m haemophilic, see. It’s only moderate, but it was enough to make me 4-F. All of my friends got shipped off to Anchorage, and I get stuck working as an electrician. Everybody thought I was dodging the draft after I graduated. So I thought I’d disappear, too.”
“You would rather die on the battlefield than live in your homeland?” asked Kuznetsov.
“Sure, if you call this living, freezing my ass off on Christmas Eve.”
“Your job is important. You have water, cram, a warm bed,” Kuznetsov said, tilting his head with every item. “Medicine sometimes.”
“And you defend the defenseless. Your friends may have died for their country, but you live for what remains of it.”
Jacob thought for a moment, adjusting his rifle.
“I guess you’re right,” he said.
“You have family left?” Kuznetsov asked.
The gravel and dirty snow on the uneven road cracked beneath Jacob’s feet.
Kuznetsov’s head tilted towards him.
“Try to make one of your own, then?”
Jacob laughed lightly.
“Yeah. I’ve got a girl. Her name’s Julia. You may have seen her at dinner.”
“Julia. Hmm. Not beautiful Julia that works in the infirmary?”
“Yeah, she’s the one. She’s doing God’s work while I fix light switches.”
“You need light to see, don’t you? And she can’t heal without light.”
Jacob laughed again, deeper this time.
“Now you’re starting to sound like Father Gilbert.”
“I suppose I do.”
“You said you had a wife,” Jacob said without thinking. “Is she here? With the Responders?”
Kuznetsov remained silent. Again, Jacob couldn’t read his face. Uncomfortable, Jacob turned away, content to scan the treeline.
“Sorry,” he said. “That was an awful private question.”
“Of all the places we went together, I think here, in Charleston, would have been her favorite.”
“You think she could stand Philip’s cook-”
Right past Jacob’s ear.
Followed by a not-so-distant crack.
“Derr`mo!” shouted Kuznetsov, shoving Jacob towards the treeline. Jacob hardly processed what had happened by the time he and the Ukranian had collapsed off the side of the road: someone had nearly taken off his head with a crisp .308 round. Kuznetsov was on his feet before Jacob had a chance to catch his breath, finding cover behind a fallen tree and firing his rifle into the distance. “On your feet, Vickens! On your feet!”
Jacob shook the dizzy out of his head and hoisted himself to his knees. On habit, he again checked the action on his rifle. His mind then frantically remember something of vital import: he couldn’t fire his gun without bullets. Kuznetsov was already on his third clip before Jacob could tear open his ammo bag with trembling fingers.
It was then he heard the shouting. God, the shouting. The snow must have amplified the sound of a raider rampage, because there was no way that many were advancing.
“Why are they attacking the dam!” Jacob shouted above the din of Kuznetsov’s fire, joining him at the fallen tree. “There’s no one up here!”
“Think, boy!” Kuznetsov shouted back. “If the dam comes down, all of Charleston goes with it!”
“Comes down?! Wha- The raiders would need artillery, or, or, bulldozers! Or-”
“Jacob, I need you to run!” Kuznetsov shouted, firing again. “Run and alert the rest of the men. Peterson and the others won’t be able to hold the dam themselves!”
“What?!” Jacob shouted as a bullet tore off bark from their cover. “You’re coming with me!”
“Damn it, boy! Peterson will be on his way! Go tell Larkin what is happening!”
“You don’t know that! Kuz, you’re going to get yourself killed!”
“And you’re going to get us all killed if you don’t go!”
Kuznetsov fired a clip more before Jacob pulled him down. Anger boiled in him, along with the adrenaline.
“What happened to living for your homeland, huh?!”
“This is not my homeland,” he hissed back. “But the people down there are my family. They are your family!”
Kuznetsov jammed another clip in his rifle, fired, and came back down when another bullet tore off frozen wood.
“You are my family, Jacob,” he said with surprising calm. “Go live for your family, live for Julia. Now go! Go!”
Kuznetsov shoved Jacob backwards. Jacob tumbled away, and without looking back, staggered to his feet as he felt bullets rain through the freeze-dried air. He ran like hell towards the crossroads to Charleston, the gunfire and howls of lunatics following behind him.
On his way back down, he did indeed see Peterson and his men running in the opposite direction towards his foreign partner.
But he never did learn what happened to Kuznetsov.
When the nuclear explosion rocked the dam fifteen minutes into his lung-burned sprint, he knew he was too late. He could only watch as the entirety of Summersville Lake fell upon the festive and unsuspecting city.
He never saw Julia again.
Upon his knees, the weight of the world crashed upon him.
And upon the flooded city of Charleston, gentle wisps of snow fell from the darkened sky.