As Melissa imagined people doing whatever they wanted because the authorities were either overwhelmed or busy caring for their own families, a sharp sense of fear rolled through her chest. Even more frightening, when food ran out—which was sure to happen rapidly—and people realized the food delivery system had been terminated and no more food would be coming, there was no telling what desperate acts people would be willing to commit to keep themselves and their families fed.
Shoving those worries away, she tried to focus on the immediate problem—how to get home quickly and safely. It was now three o’clock, and since it was late March, there were about four hours of daylight left. At least it wasn’t too cold that day—about forty degrees—although once the sun set it would get a lot colder.
“What are you going to do?” Tamara asked, her forehead creased with worry.
Melissa looked around at the other people, who looked as perplexed as she felt. “I’m not sure what to do. It’s kind of late in the day. Do you think we could make it home before dark?”
“What kind of pace do you think we could keep?”
“On the treadmill I can walk almost four miles an hour, but that’s my upper limit and that’s for about fifteen minutes.” She frowned. “And that’s wearing comfortable shoes. So realistically, I can probably go about two and a half to three miles an hour for a long time.” She grimaced. “Maybe.” And that was if they didn’t run into any trouble.
Tamara looked thoughtful. “So… it would take you about seven hours to get home and me about five.”
Melissa sighed. “Yeah. It will be way past dark before we make it all the way home.” As her imagination conjured up all kinds of nighttime dangers in a situation where there was no electricity, no cell phones, no working vehicles—and probably no law enforcement—her heart began to pound. “The thought of being out after dark freaks me out.”
“What about Alex? What if you met up with him?”
“That would be a great, but I don’t know what he’s going to do or which roads he’ll be taking. And no way to contact him.” Melissa shook her head. “I can’t count on him as a walking companion.” Melissa paused. “What about your husband? What do you think he’ll do?” Tamara was thirty and had one child, a six-year-old daughter.
“Well, Rich only has to commute a few miles to his job, so it won’t take him long to get home. And he’s usually the one to pick up Abby from school, so I would expect that he’ll make sure she’s safe. But that doesn’t stop me from worrying.”
“Me too. My kids are older though, so hopefully they’ll go straight home from school.” Sighing with frustration and worry, Melissa ran her fingers through her shoulder-length, brown hair. “I just want to get home. Now.”
“The more time we stand around talking,” Tamara said, “the less time we have before dark.”
Nodding, Melissa looked at the people standing in the parking lot, who were talking in small groups, which gave her an idea. “Hey, everybody,” she called out. Everyone turned to look at her. “I’m sure we all want to get home, and I was thinking, maybe we could get in groups according to the general area where we live and maybe walk together. You know, safety in numbers?”
When everyone nodded, Melissa felt the knot of worry in her chest begin to loosen. As people shouted out where they lived, groups quickly formed. Melissa smiled at Tamara as she stayed in Melissa’s group.
“I don’t live quite as far as you, but we both need to go the same way,” Tamara said with a smile.
Melissa appraised the other people in her group, a feeling of warmth spreading through her chest. These were all people she worked with and cared about, and she knew they would do all they could to help each other reach home safely.
As she studied the four other people in her group, she silently catalogued their strengths and weaknesses: Rob, mid-thirties, in reasonably good shape, smart and a problem solver but liked to be in charge. Dillon, mid-twenties, strong, but still somewhat immature. John, late forties and in poor health, but a really nice guy. And then there was Tamara, Melissa’s good friend. Eight years younger than Melissa, she was in great shape and someone Melissa cared about. She was glad to have her in her group.
“What now?” Tamara asked.
“We should take food and water with us,” John said. “It’s going to be a long walk.”
Worried how he would do with so much physical exertion, Melissa regarded him. Overweight, John seemed to have trouble just walking around the office without getting out of breath. Though worried, Melissa pushed it aside. They would all just have to manage the best they could.
“Don’t most of us have snacks at our desks?” Rob asked.
“I know I do,” Melissa said.
Several others agreed.
“Let’s gather all the snacks and water bottles we can and meet back out here,” Rob said.
“Does anyone have a backpack or something to carry them with?” Melissa asked.
Two in the group raised their hands.
“Bring those too,” Rob said.
The five of them walked toward the building and Melissa heard some of the other groups discussing the same strategy.
As she descended the stairwell, Melissa held on to the railing. “I can’t see a thing,” she said to Tamara, who she assumed was nearby, although she couldn’t be sure.
“Just be careful,” Tamara said from behind her.
Feeling her way, Melissa reached her cubicle. After putting on her sweater—even if she warmed up while walking, she knew she would need it eventually—she opened the cabinet above her desk and stuck her hand in, patting the space until she touched an item she knew was a box of protein bars. She grabbed the other items, which included a bag of dried fruit and a half-eaten box of pop-tarts. She took out her purse, which was basically a small backpack, and placed the food inside, then grabbed the half-full water bottle that was sitting next to her computer monitor.
“How are you coming along, Tamara?” she asked into the darkness.
“I’m ready,” Tamara’s answered. “How about you?”
“I just want to top off my water bottle.”
A moment later Tamara entered Melissa’s cubicle and they moved carefully through the darkness toward the drinking fountain Melissa always used to fill her water bottle. But when she pressed the lever, nothing happened.
“Oh,” she said, feeling stupid. “I guess this runs on electricity.” She turned around, trying to figure out where to go. “I’m going to try the sink in the break room.”
A few moments later she had her water bottle under the faucet, filling it.
“I wonder how long the water will work,” Tamara said.
“Why wouldn’t it?”
“Doesn’t the water company use electricity to pump the water?”
She hadn’t thought about that. Fresh worry made Melissa’s insides clench. What would happen if people couldn’t get water? She didn’t even want to consider that. Fortunately, they had a decent amount of water stored at their house, thanks to the suggestion of their next-door neighbor, Stan, who was into prepping.
“I guess I’m ready to go,” Melissa said, but she felt more unprepared than she ever had in her life.