Three days outside of The Hut. 4:38 Eastern Standard Time.
Two days of steady driving, taking turns at the wheel, had brought us to a run down looking bar in the middle of nowhere. By our best estimates, we were still seventy-two hours from our objective. Things were becoming more difficult as we got closer, not even knowing if we would find what we were looking for there. It was time to stop. Our food supplies were running low and two of our water jugs had overturned and spilled their contents onto the floor of the truck. We could only hope this clapboard saloon would be able to sell us supplies.
"Aren't you Ben Casey?"
Recognition could be a danger, or it could be helpful, one could never be sure. It all depended on the color of their uniforms, but not so much the manifestation of the uniform in the clothing of the individual, but the uniform they wore on the inside. Treachery was everywhere. No one could be trusted.
"We need supplies."
The man was sitting on the front porch of the old building. The windows of advertised a number of beers with barely functioning old electric signs. I wasn't sure what to tell the old man. He appeared harmless enough, but looks were deceiving in these times. Looking him over did little to convince me of anything other than my own lack of certainty about anything. He wore a tattered old flannel shirt and oil-stained jeans. His hair was long, thinning and gray, combed forward in such a way to hide the extent of his baldness.
"Ben Casey. A friend of the revolution. That is you, is it not?"
Answers were always non-committal. One always needed to have an escape path in any conversation. There was often no way to know what side anyone stood on until the final statement, which tended to leave at least one corpse in its wake. I had been to many an oasis such as this. Friends tended to wait for your back to turn and enemies often extended a helping hand.
"There is no revolution. Only death."
Standardized answers were part of the keys to survival in the new order of things. No matter where you stood in the ongoing conflict and chaos, the best way to stay alive was to convince those who might have other interests that you believed in no cause other than your own survival.
"And your friend?"
Kristy had perfected the art of disguise. Convincing others that she was a man played an important role in our mission and our survival. There were too many roving gangs who would see Kristy as a weakness and potential prize of battle. Little did they know that Kristy was protecting me and not the other way around. She had spent fifteen years in military service, six of them in combat duty. Kristy was so numb to killing that she could shoot another human being at close range without flinching and use a handkerchief to wipe any human residue off her face and clothing.
"Food and water. Cash or trade."
The old man stood up and motioned for us to follow him into the building. It bore the heavily musty smell of dust and sweat. The barroom was sparsely populated with a variety of lost souls. Some were dressed in old military uniforms, so worn out and torn that these men could be easily identified as psychological deserters. Part of a rising problem in the military, they were part of hundreds who simply snapped and wandered off, away from their comrades in arms. They all had the same look in their eyes, a blank stare that marked a frightening inner death. The rest that occupied the saloon were angry men, young and old, who had lost someone they cared about in the ongoing struggle and tried in vain to drink away their memories and their pain.
"A lot of people are looking for you, Ben Casey.
They won't find you here."
Psychological deserters were a good sign, as far as my own survival was concerned. Any place they could gather freely was a safe haven for those of us in the resistance. It meant there was little likelihood that the authorities would make an appearance. Most of the deserters didn't care what happened to them, as long as they didn't have to return to the front lines. A hospital or a prison was no different to them than this saloon, although some medications were more satisfying than liquor.
A man stepped out from behind the door and stopped Kristy from entering.
He blocked her with his right arm while holding out a box with his left hand.
"No weapons. You can take them when you leave."
Disarming my bodyguard made me a bit nervous, but we had been through this drill before. I looked over the old man again and then the bouncer, studying their eyes for a hint of truth. I nodded to Kristy, letting her know it was okay to disarm. Watching the face of the bouncer as Kristy filled his box with goodies, I could tell he was impressed with her arsenal. She was religiously prepared for any possibility. The pat down that followed made me take pause. I wasn't concerned about the bouncer finding hidden weapons. I was concerned about him noticing Kristy had breasts.
"Your first drink is on me."
We were cautious. This was the land of the disappeared and there was no law here aside from house rules. Upset an angry drunk and he'll be gunning for you up the road. This was the time to gather information and stock supplies. A couple of cold beers didn't hurt, either.
"Nice truck you got out there.
Where did you steal it?"
The glint in his eye told me he was being sarcastic, so I raised my beer in a toast and laughed with him for a moment. These were strange days. There was a lot of open road ahead and no fortune teller could answer our questions about what we would find further along this road. They say The Hut was hit pretty hard a couple of nights ago. Old weapons from a dying regime. There were no postcards, only empty spaces. I ordered another beer and decided to worry about the supplies later. For the first time in months I was in a place where safety didn't feel so out of reach. It wouldn't last. Things change.