The sign on the door designated his title as Vocational Education Program
Administrator. His dark blue jacket hung on the coat rack next to the door. The
white shirtsleeves rolled half way up his forearms. He sat behind his desk with
his face in his hands attempting to calm the migraine. The stack of VEP
applications on his desk were at an unmanageable level. His staff of four
overwhelmed. There weren’t enough hours in the day or days in the week to
complete all of the required inspections and paperwork. His most experienced
and reliable inspector abandoned her position for maternity leave. She would
not return for at least 4 months and there was no replacement. The remaining
inspectors slow, sloppy and teetered on the line of incompetence. Government
funding for the program depended on the number of VEP applicants certified in a
given year. His boss breathed down his neck to increase productivity 8 percent
over last year. He looked at the stack of applications, he could fabricate the
reports and save time, no one would know.
Huddled in a corner with blankets over his head, Gavin fell asleep to the sounds of torrential rain and howling winds. It was a pleasant surprise to wake and feel the calm of a sunny day. Tossing the blankets aside, he stood and gazed out the only unbroken window of his home. It would take weeks to rebuild.
The deadly storm had lasted the three days his wife Rachel predicted. His loving wife always had a way of knowing what was going to happen. Gavin looked back at the rocker next to the fireplace where his dying wife Rachel had sat quietly quilting the year before. With uplifting words, she promised within a year’s time new life would spring forth from devastation. His life would change for the better.
Gavin pushed open the front door and stepped out into the sun. Everything was broken.
“How could anything spring forth from this?” he muttered as he picked up a piece of his roof and tossed it out-of-the-way. It slammed into the broken chicken coup. An unexpected cry came from the rubble. Barely audible pitiful cries that grew louder as Gavin stepped toward the heap of wood and twisted metal. He expected to find a wounded animal that he would be forced to put down. What he saw beneath the rubble caught him by surprise. She was so tiny, cold and looked half-starved to death. A large bump protruded from her forehead and her left arm bent in a peculiar way.
“Too stubborn to die?” he said as he carefully removed the rubble and picked up the broken infant. “You are far from home.”
The storm had taken many lives and there were many wounded in the town. Half the day passed before a physician arrived to look at the tiny bundle that had landed in the chicken coup. The physician examined the tiny infant with bewilderment. “Gavin, I am amazed she survived this long. You have a miracle on your hands. I have set her arm and cleaned the head wound. Try to keep her still. I can do no more. If she survives, she survives. Keep her warm by the fire and feed her the milk from the woolly goat. I will return every couple of days to check on her progress”.
Gavin stared down at the broken infant as the physician walked out the front door. “New life will spring forth from the devastation.” He smiled to himself as the words from his dying wife played out in his head. He had assumed she was referring to the crops in the field or his small herd of woolly goats. Rachel had always wanted a baby but years of trying had only produced tears and heartbreaking loss; Six infants buried beneath the grand oak. Gavin picked up the sleeping infant and carefully cradled her in his arms. “My wife would have loved you dearly.” he whispered into her tiny ear. “Welcome to your new home.”
The following days the elders made count of the survivors. Five people died from injuries sustained during the deadly storm. Tiny, cold and broken, Moira had miraculously survived. She recovered from her injuries and thrived.
The Cost of Debt
Family debt forced mothers and fathers to surrender their children to the state-run Office of Financial affairs. As commodities of the state, children could be bought and sold until the age of 18. By law, the collectors could gather children to satisfy unpaid debt using any means necessary.
It was too late. Pleading for more time and promising to sell a kidney, she watched as the collector and two armed security guards load her eight year old son into the back of a truck. The boy was crying. He begged not to go. She yelled out his name and cried, “I’ll get you back!”
The Truck Driver
The truck was government- issue, purchased from an army surplus sale. The driver worked as a subcontractor for the Office of Financial Affairs delivering cargo to different Vocational Education Programs around the country. He wore an old tattered shirt and a leather jacket that had seen better days. He smelled of armpit, cigar smoke and fast food.
The driver laughed as he pulled himself into the cab of the truck. His cargo this trip consisted of two dozen frightened children on a one-way trip to hell.
My name is Ghent. I remember nothing prior to the time of my awakening; during my first conscious moments, my mind attempted to search for answers. I was not afraid but lost in blankness; there were no images to retrieve, no clue to my predicament. Limited to a space no larger than a casket, movement was minimal; I used my hands to search for a button or a lever that would allow escape from my captivity. While blindly searching the walls, a light above my head began to flash and change in color from red, to yellow, to green. The hatch released allowing external air to rush in; the sudden change in air pressure caused my lungs to take a series of unexpected deep breaths. The inhalation of fresh air was invigorating. I reached out and pushed the hatch aside. My first images of freedom were a metal grey ceiling lined with pipes and recessed lighting. Curious about my surroundings coupled with the desire to flee my confinement I sat up. To my surprise, I was not alone.
A room of strangers, both male and female from various places of origin, we looked at each other uncertain what to say. When words were finally spoken the language unfamiliar but recognizable to all. My first attempts to speak in retrospect were comical. I started and stopped sentences several times in an attempt to fix the malfunction in my brain. The words in my head English but what springs forth from my mouth is not.
I look around nothing is familiar. A placard on the wall suggests we are in a place called Dannick. None of us remembers entering the pods; our minds blank in regards to past events. Attempts to brain storm for answers ineffective; our imaginations run wild with possibilities. We can only speculate as to how, when or why our destinies collided in this place.
Our matching jumpsuits suggest we are members of a group possibly inmates or an elite band of warriors. I prefer to think we are the later or something comparable in respectability. I do not wish to be a criminal.
Collectively we decided to explore our surroundings. I suggest we are on a military vessel or in the deep dark depths of a research facility or possibly a fallout shelter; although a logical reason for being in either of those places is not apparent. I step toward the only door leading out of the room; it slides open. Two armed guards prevent my exit.
Captain Addison enters the room; with all the joy of a proud father and exclaims “Welcome to the Dannick!” He called us recruits and congratulated us on finding our way here. My mind is confused. I try to remember what I have forgotten, to make sense of my circumstance. Captain Addison makes it sound as if we are here by choice. He seems nice enough but I feel as if all is not what it seems. I am a recruit for this vessel but something deep within says I do not belong here.
The Diner Owner
The young man behind the counter was tall and lean. His dark curly hair handed down from his mother; “God rest her soul”. With a heavy sigh, he wraps the food-stained apron around his waist. He loathed this place: the counter, the stove, the constant smell of grease. The diner and its associated debt belonged to his dead parents; their lives stolen as they returned home from a friend’s anniversary party by a drunk driver grieving the loss of his cheating girlfriend.
Matt considered abandoning the diner and its associated debt to attend college but his younger brother would suffer the consequences. The boy was only 15, and considered property of his parent’s estate. The Office of Financial Affairs could legally tag the boy as a commodity and sell him into slavery to pay off his parent’s debts. He would not reach the age of independence for three years.
Her entire wardrobe consisted of half a dozen blue waitress uniforms. As a child, she had been a commodity; life was hell. Her teenage years spent on the run fighting to survive in a world that treats children as less than human. Her employment at the diner began at the age of 18. The previous owner and father of the young man behind the counter had been good to her. She cried the day he died.
A member of a secret society of child advocates, she aids runners in evading capture by the retrievers.
He was in his mid-thirties but he looked older. 10 years spent as a retriever of runners had caused not one but two ulcers to develop in his stomach. He wore a black suit as required by the agency. A 9mm .40 cal semi-automatic pistol and a badge rested on his belt. The badge gave him the authority to capture runners. Dead or alive it didn’t matter. He had a quota and he was running behind this month.
The rain pounding on his windshield was making it difficult to see. He pulled into the Diner parking lot. The signal from the girl was weak but she was somewhere in the area. He slapped the side the tracking device a couple of times before giving it a big shake. The damn thing never worked right.
The Waitress Pt.2
The moment the diner door chimed, she knew a retriever had walked in. They all looked the same, black suit, badge and firearm displayed on their belts. This one looked unhappy. Something weighed heavy on his mind.
He walked to the counter and took the first available seat.
“What can I get you?” She asked as she listened for the young couple’s exit thru the backdoor.
“Just Coffee and toast.” he replied as he fidgeted with the non-functioning tracking device. The girl was close. He could feel it. If it weren’t for office budget cuts and a freeze on buying new equipment, he’d have this commodity bagged and tagged for the landfill.
“You look like you could use a hardy meal. The boy in the back makes a tasty breakfast platter. Let me serve that up for you.” She slaps the counter to get his attention. “It’s on the house!”
Life in Bear Country was written by Marsha Loftis as a blog from 2004 to 2006. The blog was deleted years ago. I have decided to revive it with some additional content. All 164 journal entries were podcast when it was originally written. I’m not saying the writing is great or even mediocre but decided not sharing all that hard work would be a waste.
I’m not sure exactly what day this whole thing started. I never watched the news. I was a kid doing my own thing. I didn’t care what was happening around me as long as I could spend time with my friends. I remember my Dad saying how sad it was that a mother of three small children had died from the flu. Then someone else died, then someone else and then quarantine. Life fell apart after that.
We were told to stay in our homes. Stay away from other people. Don’t go out in the streets. Doctors were working on a cure. People panicked, they left town to get help from other hospitals. This was a mistake. Soon the news was filled with stories about epidemics, people dying by the hundreds, then the thousands.
My dad was a part of the homeland security team. He was working with the town government trying to keep things under control. Unfortunately, his efforts and the efforts of others didn’t help. The virus continued to spread. The death toll continued to rise and soon bodies began to pile up on the streets. It was awful. Our entire town smelled like death.
My mother died first. My heart hurt so bad. I wanted to die. My father was already sick. I could tell his heart was broken too. He died a couple of days later. I laid on my bed and cried for a couple of days hoping death would take me too. The only thing that took hold of me was hunger.
Children were left to survive on their own. Death prayed on the smallest children. Babies died in their cribs. Toddlers starved to death because they couldn’t get out of their homes. The older children began to ban together and form tribes. The Bear Tribe was formed when about a dozen children and I moved into the Bear Country High School on LaFayette Blvd. We survived but life wasn’t easy.
I have always wanted to be a writer. I think my Dad bought me my first journal when I was in the 1st grade. I have kept a journal ever since. This is my story. The following journal entries are a brief view of my life.
The diner was a temporary stopping place, a safe haven from the torrential downpour outside. The booth made of old wood was cold and drafty but offered a clear view of the road. Exhausted from their journey, her head of brown curls resting on his tired shoulders she whispers, “I love you”.
The waitress brings the weary travelers two glasses of water and a day old cinnamon bun. The young man scratches his stubbly chin and nods in appreciation. He could offer no more. His pockets were empty.
The waitress sighs, “There would be no tip from this table”. The Young Man
The young man’s tracking device ceased to function the day he turned 18. In a few months, the device implanted at the age of four would break down leaving a small scar, the only evidence of his forced servitude. He stood released from the life of a commodity. The Vocational Education Program that bound him, as slave labor could no longer force him to work. He walked a free man. His life his own, he could travel anywhere, go to college or seek employment. All traces of his life in hell erased from the books, sealed by the courts as governed by law.
The young man looked out the window; the rain slowed to a drizzle. “We gotta go,” he said nudging his girlfriend out of the booth. The Young Girl
Her brown curls were from her drug- addicted mother. Her father unknown, he could have been one of a thousand men. Life as a commodity started at the age of four. If the state penitentiary had welcomed her mother a couple years sooner she might have had a chance at adoption and a good home.
Her days of picking vegetables and daily devotional were numbered. Too old for the needs of the church, the elders had taken her picture and marked her for sale. The caption on the bottom of the Commodity Trade show flyer indicated she was a good reliable worker. She ran away from hell to stay with the young man. Pursued by a retriever, her tracking device still functioned.
I am a woman of considerable age and I admit the stories my grandfather told me as a child still bring fear to my soul.
The last two mornings I have traveled to work in a dense fog. The fog was so thick in spots I was unable to see more than an arm’s length away. If I hadn’t known where I was going I would have gotten lost in the scariness. My grandfather was a storyteller. The best Pride has ever seen. I loved his stories, even the ones that frightened me. Many a night after listening to my grandfather, tell his tales I crouched beneath my bed quilts in fear.
My favorite stories contained mighty and ferocious dragons. According to my grandfather, dragons were misunderstood wondrous creatures of flight. A dragon by nature was not a killing beast but a guardian of gateways to magical realms. They only ate bad children who continuously misbehaved and caused their parents unbearable stress and grief. Dragons hid in the early morning mist and used the fog to travel between the realms.
This morning after reaching the Clinch River Bridge, the memories of my youth came flooding back. The dense fog reminded me of dragons. The bridge is old and needs replaced. A slow steady pace is required on a clear day. The journey across on a day when you can’t see where you are going is treacherous. Halfway across I stumble over a broken board. I fell and scraped my knee. The pain took me by surprise. I yelled a few words that I won’t repeat here. As I picked myself up, I saw two emerald green eyes racing toward me and hear a screeching that sounded very much like the cry of a dragon. I covered my head and crouched in fear. There was a brief moment when I was certain a dragon was going to eat me.
It was not a dragon but Mr. Fredericks driving a motor cart. He was on his way home. If I hadn’t fallen on my knee and cried out in pain, he wouldn’t have known I was on the bridge. Mr. Fredericks apologized for nearly running me over and promised not to tell my husband I swear like a sailor.
A reality television show sponsored by major industry giants, The Commodity Combat Tournaments(CCT) are promoted as a way to test, study and develop safety equipment and weapons for hunters, soldiers and survivalists.
Dog fights are illegal. Those caught breaking the animal-cruelty laws face stiff fines and punishments of up to five years in prison.
Drafted from Commodity Trade shows by recruiters, a child commodity has no protection. There are no anti-cruelty laws on the books protecting children from deadly combat tournaments camouflaged as family entertainment.
Boys and Girls selected as competitors for CCT are subjected to 3 months of intense combat training. Survival rates a mere 42%. For rating purposes, a select few are fast tracked to the games.
Betting on how long your favorite runner would survive and evade capture was a favorite family pastime.
Sponsored by major industry giants, the “Cup of Commodity” coffee shop offered a variety of beverages and pastries in a family friendly environment. Located on the back wall behind the pastry bar, the Tracker Board ranked the top 20 Runners. Large flat screen televisions strategically placed around the room looped the most recent runner updates. Bets taken at any cash register; identification required.
You could hear a pin drop; everyone’s eyes were on the television screens. It was a good run; the freckle-faced 14-year-old commodity dodged capture for 12 days, an almost unheard of event.
It was all fun and games. The boy thought he was invincible. He taunted the retriever with clues to his hiding places.
For financial gain, an anonymous spotter sent a photo pinpointing the boy’s exact location to the Retriever.
The local television station played the clip several times. Below the underpass, crouched in the dirt the boy begged for his life. “Wait! Please!” He cried wiping his tears. “Can I see my mom? Can I talk to her?”
Annoyed with this one, the retriever smiled and pulled the trigger.
The “Cup of Commodity” coffee shop broke into simultaneous celebration and displeasure. The money exchanging hands would put this runner on the all-time favorite list. The boy’s mom would receive a small cash award from the “Cup of Commodity” for her son’s efforts.