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A mother’s worry
Free Falling grabs you from the very first page and takes you on an emotional roller coaster ride with Sarah Woodson, a mother who has taken anxiety and fear for her child’s safety to an unhealthy level. Fretting about everything that could possibly impact negatively on her only child, Sarah has succeeded in endangering her health, her job and even her marriage with her irrational worries.
A mother’s nightmare
The day the world stops spinning for the Woodson family is the second day of their Irish vacation when a nuclear bomb detonates in the atmosphere over the Irish Sea. With no communications, no cars, no electricity and a countryside rapidly turning into a lawless world of kill-or-be-killed, the family must survive until help comes…if it is coming at all. For Sarah, it is the day her irrational worries dissolve forever as she comes face to face with real fear.
A mother’s courage
In Sarah’s new world, the unthinkable happens daily. Forced to combat terror she never imagined before, she soon discovers an inner core of steel she didn’t know she had. When the moment comes to do what is necessary to protect her family, even Sarah is shocked to learn what she is capable of.
Free Falling is a breathtaking adventure ride that will have you cheering between fingers that have been bitten down to the quick until the very last page.
Fear of Falling: What would YOU do if the unthinkable happened?
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The bad thing happened on the second day of their vacation.
Although they would end up calling it many things in the coming years—the crisis, the blackout, the incident—the event would always be defined by one important feature: In a flash, it changed everyone’s lives forever.
The trip itself began with anticipation and expectation like every other vacation they had ever taken as a family. The Boeing 757 touched down at Shannon Airport outside of Limerick in early September 2011. Sarah could feel her ten year-old son’s excitement in the seat next to hers even when she wasn’t looking at him.
“And you’re positive I’ll be able to recharge my iPhone?” he said, as he stared out the airplane window.
“Ireland is not a third world country,” his father said as he unbuckled his seatbelt. “In fact, they lead the world in computer technology or something, I read.” He stood to pull down the carry-on luggage from the overhead compartment, then handed Sarah’s battered Vuitton to her.
“But consider giving the iPhone a break,” Sarah said. “We’re here to see Ireland. It’s a very rural country with—”
“You told me, Mom,” her son interrupted. “I get it. Rural, beautiful, lots of history and stuff. I just don’t want to be bored out of my mind, okay? I mean, while you and Dad are drinking wine at cafés and stuff and visiting museums, I need my stuff, too.”
Sarah frowned and caught her husband’s eye.
He shook his head. Plenty of time to fight this old battle later, his expression said. “Let’s find some authentic Irish food,” he said with a smile. “And a lager.”
“Cool. They have logging in Ireland? Like in Seattle, and stuff?”
Sarah laughed. “Let’s go find those loggers,” she said.
That first night they stayed in a traditional Irish hotel and ate a simple meat stew. They spent three hours in the corner pub singing with the locals and washing away their jet lag with the local brew. Matt and Sarah tucked John into a cot in the small hotel room and then kissed briefly before falling into bed early themselves.
The next morning it was raining.
“It’s freezing outside,” John said as he entered the hotel dining room. “And it’s only September.”
“Come get warm by the fire and eat something,” Sarah said. “Dad’s out renting the car for our drive to the village we’ll be staying in.”
John settled into a chair next to his mother and examined his breakfast plate.
“They cooked the tomatoes,” he said.
“They do, over here.”
“And I ordered bacon but they gave me ham.”
“This is what their bacon looks like.”
“Well, so is bacon, really.”
“No, bacon and ham both come from a pig but bacon is not ham.”
“Okay. But this is as close to bacon as you get for the next ten days, okay?”
“The toast is weird.”
“John, everything is weird when you’re in a foreign country, okay? It’s part of the reason one travels. To have things not the same as where you live.”
John cut a piece of ham and ate it. “It’s not terrible,” he said.
The door swung open and an icy blast of air invaded the room. Matt strode in, gave her a quick kiss and sat down. “It’s really cold out there,” he said, pouring himself a cup of tea. “Oh, crap. Don’t they have coffee?”
“It’s in the other carafe. How long do you think it’ll take us to get to Balinagh?”
Matt tousled his son’s hair. “Eating an authentic Irish breakfast, are you?”
“John.” His mother frowned at him.
“Just kidding,” he said, grinning sheepishly.
“About half a day, I think,” Matt said, pouring his coffee. “You got all the directions to the rental cottage?”
“There’ll be someone there to show us where everything is,” Sarah said. “And to change the linens every few days, but for the most part, we’ll be on our own.”
“Mom? Did you ask someone about the iPhone charger?”
As they drove through the countryside, Matt decided Ireland was green and largely wet in order to stay that way. The road divided undulating hocks and hills crisscrossed by ancient stone walls. With so few trees, the green horizon seemed to stretch on indefinitely, one verdant field after another.
“Hey, there’s sheep up ahead.” John tossed aside his Game Boy and pointed over his mother’s shoulder. “Don’t run over ‘em, Dad.”
“I won’t,” Matt said, slowing down. “But I have to admit to not knowing who has the right of way, here.”
“Give it to the sheep, dear,” Sarah said.
They braked to a halt.
John rolled down his window and stuck his head out. “There’s, like, a real shepherd with them and everything,” he said. “And man, those sheep are dirty.”
“Lots of mud in Ireland,” Sarah murmured. “Rain makes Ireland emerald. Rain makes Ireland muddy.”
“Are you losing your grip, honey?” Matt grinned at her.
She laughed. “Just trying to adjust to island time, you know.”
“Maybe we should throw our watches away.”
“Or at least pack them away until it’s time to go home.”
They sat in silence as the sheep and their shepherd moved slowly across the road.
As he watched the sheep, Matt realized that Sarah’s idea to visit a remote part of Ireland was a good one. They had all gotten stretched thin with their schedules back in Jacksonville. She was probably right, too, about John’s obsession with his electronics, although Matt had been pretty addicted to television when he was his son’s age. Even so, just being some place so foreign—and rural—felt like it was already doing them a world of good. He glanced at his wife who was frowning at the way the shepherd was handling things—as if she could will him to move his flock faster.
It was all very well for her to orchestrate this vacation in order to amend what she saw as a deficit or undesirable feature in the family (and the marriage?) but he would be interested to see how she managed the next ten days without her smartphone, iPad and movies-on-demand.
The shepherd waved to them as he led his flock up the hill into a pasture enclosed by a dilapidated fieldstone wall.
John pulled his head into the car. “I’m starving, Mom. What’s there to eat?”
Sarah handed her son a biscuit wrapped in a paper napkin. “Here, I saved it from your breakfast.”
“Oh, great. Now we’re in an episode of Survivor Man.”
“We’ll stop for lunch in a bit,” Matt said to his son. “Want your first beer?”
“Matt,” Sarah said, admonishingly.
John took the biscuit and bit into it. “I’m dying of thirst,” he said.
By the time Matt stopped the car in front of the little cottage, Sarah was tired and her back ached. They had stocked up on groceries in Balinagh, the nearest town to the cottage. Because of the condition of the poor country roads, the drive had been longer than she expected.
The cottage was more like a one-level carriage house. It had a steep roof of shingles and a chimney between two large windows in the front. Grass lined both sides of the long drive that led from the main road to the front yard of the house. Flowering vines crawled up the window framework and around the door which had a small porch with three flat wooden steps. A back door from the kitchen led to a courtyard of stone flanked on one side by the entrance to a small paddock with broken fence slats, a very old barn, and a vegetable garden that looked like it hadn’t been tended in years.
It was clear that no one had lived in the place for a long time. The house was what the Irish called “self catering.” Sarah didn’t think it looked like it had been self-catered in a long time either.
“Wow! There’s horses here. Mom, did you know there would be horses here?” John leaped out of the car and ran to the barn.
Matt looked at the piece of paper Sarah held in her hand. “Are you positive this is it?” he asked.
“Matt, yes.” She looked at him fiercely. “Can we, at least, look inside before you decide I’ve made a big mistake?”
“Did it look like this on the Internet?” Matt asked, his eyes still taking in the small stone cottage.
“No, this isn’t…” Sarah took a breath as she felt the anxiety climbing higher into her chest. “This isn’t the one I saw online, remember? I got the e-mail at the airport saying that one had burned down and that we were to go to this one, that it was comparable.”
Matt stepped out of the rental car. “Did the other one have horses?”
“Of course not,” she said, still seated. “There were no horses.”
“Dad! Mom! You gotta see this!” John ran back to the car. “There are three horses in there!”
“Can we, Dad?” John literally jumped in delight. “Can the small one be mine?”
Matt looked at Sarah. “Let’s look in the house first, son,” he said.
Please let it have indoor plumbing, Sarah thought as she climbed out of the car.
John ran to the front door and pushed it open. “It’s not locked,” he said before darting inside.
“I’m sorry, Matt,” she said. “The one I booked on the Internet was much bigger.”
John met them on the porch. “It’s just got one room,” he said. “And only one bed. I don’t get my own bed?”
Sarah and Matt went inside.
“Well,” Matt said with a sigh. “To quote my son, this sucks.”
A large king-sized bed was pushed up against the far wall. Next to it was a door, which Sarah hoped was to an indoor bathroom. A giant stone fireplace anchored the front wall of the house and faced the kitchen and dining area on the opposite wall. The floor was polished wood and several thick rugs covered most of it. Two easy chairs faced the fireplace.
“It’s actually very cozy,” Matt said. “Very comfy—except for the one bed thing.”
“Hey! There’s a TV!” John called out. “On the table next to the bed.” He began to fiddle with its dials.
“I wonder if they get Conan here,” Matt said, sitting down on the bed. “It’s a nice bed.”
“Look, Matt, I’m sorry, okay?” Sarah said. “I booked a two-bedroom cottage.”
“Why don’t we unpack our groceries and get settled in a little?” Matt said, clapping his hands together.
“Really?” Sarah looked at him. “You’re okay with this?”
“Do we have an option?”
“I don’t really know. I have a phone number.”
He got up and took her in his arms. “Don’t bother,” he said. “I say we make the most of what we’ve got.”
She put her head on his shoulder and felt some of the tension drain from her body. “Thanks,” she whispered.
He kissed her then called to John: “Come on, John. Let’s unload the groceries and the bags and Mom and I can start getting supper on the table.”
“You gonna come out and see the horses?”
Matt turned to look at Sarah, who shrugged. “Right. The horses. Okay. Show me the horses,” he said. The two walked out the door and headed for the barn.
Sarah buttoned her sweater and rubbed her hands together. It was cold in the little cottage. She began looking for the thermostat she would never find.
It happened sometime during their first night.
They had built a fire in the fireplace and made a supper of canned stew with a fresh salad and a bottle of good South African red wine. John was able to get Sponge Bob Square Pants on the TV but was told he couldn’t watch his first night in Ireland. The three of them bundled up in jackets and a quilt and sat outside under the stars talking and identifying constellations. That night would be the last time that Sarah could look up to the heavens without praying fervently. It would be the last time any of them would choose to sit outside and waste the warmth of the fireplace.
On that first night, the experiences and trials of their day of travel and discovery had left them ready for bed. However, the sounds of the Irish countryside, the creaking, cooing, cawing with the occasional horse whinny, made it difficult for both Matt and Sarah to fall asleep.
In the cold and foggy morning to which they awoke, they found the world forever changed.
“Mom, can we ride the horses today?”
Sarah turned over in bed and put her hand out to touch her husband’s shoulder. “Matt,” she murmured. “He shouldn’t be in the barn. Too many things to fall on his head.”
“John,” Matt moaned from his side of the big bed. “Stay inside until we’re all up.”
“Just hang tight, John,” Sarah said, groping for her iPhone on the side table. Eight o’clock. It had begun to rain in the night. “I’ll make breakfast.”
“Can I watch TV?” John came over and sat on the side of the bed. “Pleeeeeease?” He leaned over and kissed his mother on the cheek.
“We need to have some rules about the TV,” she said.
“Thanks, Mom.” He jumped up and snapped on the set.
“I am so not going to exchange one country’s television laugh-track for another,” she said. “It’s the same droning idiocy as back home. Only the accents have been changed.”
Matt yawned and sat up beside his wife. “Morning,” he said, and kissed her.
John turned up the TV. “Mom, I think something’s wrong.”
“Don’t tell me it doesn’t work, sweetie. Because it doesn’t matter anyway. We’re here to—”
Matt’s body tensed. He jumped out of bed. “Sarah, something’s happened.” He stood next to his son in front of the TV set. “There’s been a…an incident or something. John, go out and play.”
“It’s raining outside, Dad.”
“What is it?” Sarah pulled on a sweatshirt and joined Matt and John in front of the TV. “What’s happening?”
The images on the television looked like amateur video. There were explosions, cars flipped over, crumpled buildings, and fires. The Irish announcer alternated from a reporting voice to a shrillness bordering on hysteria.
“My God, what is—” Sarah covered her mouth with her hands. “It’s home,” she turned to look at Matt. “It’s America.”
Stunned by the images and sirens and screams, Matt held up a hand for silence. He listened as the newscaster intoned in a strong Irish accent: “…reports of nuclear contamination in several major cities…”
“What is?” John looked panicked. “What’s happening back home, Mom? Dad? Are we…are they attacking us? Are we being bombed?”
“Shhhh.” Sarah wrapped her arms around her boy. “Just listen,” she whispered.
“‘……too soon to attribute to any specific terrorist group but certainly an attack of this magnitude…”
“My God,” Sarah said and tears filled her eyes.
“Take him outside, Sarah,” Matt said. “For God’s sake, don’t let him see this.”
John turned to his mother. “What’s happening, Mom? Is it going to be okay?”
Sarah stood and ushered the boy outside. The two of them stood on the porch. The rain splattered droplets of mud onto the legs of their pajamas. She hugged him tightly.
“It’s going to be okay,” she said into his baby fine hair. “It’s going to be okay.”
“Are they attacking us?” he asked.
“I don’t know, sweetie,” she said. “Dad will let us know in a bit.”
Matt stood in front of the TV holding his breath and trying to take it all in. His mind churned with the terrible images, the panic in the newscasters’ voices, his own tumultuous thoughts.
An hour later, the rain had stopped and Matt and Sarah sat on the front steps of the cottage. The clouds had blown away, leaving a clear blue sky. John hung on the fence of the adjoining corral talking to the horses and feeding them carrots.
“What do we do?”
Matt shook his head. “It’s bad,” he said. “They’ve shut down all flights in and out of the States. Indefinitely.”
“So we can’t get home.”
“And I tried to call the American embassy in Dublin,” he said, pulling out his cell phone. “But it just goes to a recording.”
They were silent for a moment.
“Should we drive back to Limerick?” Sarah watched her son as he laughed while petting the forelock of the biggest horse.
Matt frowned. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” he said. “It’ll be crazy there. Probably wouldn’t be able to get a hotel room. At least here we have a place to stay.”
“Did they say who did this to us?”
Matt took his wife’s hand.
“They’re suggesting some place in the Middle East, big surprise. They made it sound like whole cities are affected.”
“Which cities?” Sarah felt the panic rise in her throat. “Washington?”
“I…I couldn’t tell. It wasn’t much in the way of news. It was just, you know, mayhem and fire and explosions. The Irish newscasters didn’t know. Just knew the US was under attack.”
All of a sudden a bright flash appeared in the sky, turning the horizon briefly white with its intensity.
“John!” Matt shouted. “Come to me, son!”
The boy dropped from the fence, and trotted over to where his parents sat, a questioning frown on his face in response to the panic in his father’s voice.
It was over in less than five seconds. The brightness faded and the sky returned to a bright Irish fall day.
“What the hell, Matt?” Sarah was on her feet. “What just happened?”
“I’m not really sure,” he said.
“What was that big flash?”
“Sarah, calm down. Let’s all just calm down.”
“I’m scared, Dad,” John said, prompting Matt to hold him even tighter.
“Look, you guys,” Matt said. “We’re together and we’re safe. That’s what’s important.”
Sarah looked at him with fear growing in her eyes. “Something just happened here, didn’t it?” she said.
“I don’t know, Sarah,” Matt said. “Maybe.”
She stood up. “We need to get into town and see if anybody knows anything there.”
He could see she was terrified. His own heart was pounding fast in his throat. He looked out over the pasture where the flash had lit up the sky. Everything looked so normal now. So peaceful. So beautiful. The birds were singing.
“Sarah, let’s stay calm, okay?”
“John, wanna go into town?” Sarah held out her hand to him. “Keys, Matt, please,” she said, her voice becoming shrill.
Matt stood up. “I’ll drive,” he said.
They all got into the small rental car, buckled up and then sat in the driveway facing the main road.
The car wouldn’t start.
“Crap,” Matt said.
“I was afraid of this,” he said. “The car’s too new. If there’s really been some kind of nuclear explosion—”
“Are you serious?” Sarah gaped at him. “Is that what you think happened? Ireland had a nuclear bomb dropped on it?”
“Mom? Dad? Is everything okay?” John’s voice shook.
Matt opened the car door. “Let’s don’t do this here,” he said. “Come on, sport. We’re not taking the car today.”
As Sarah jumped out of the car. Her purse spilled onto the dirt driveway. “Matt, why is the damn car not starting?”
Matt ran his fingers through his hair in exasperation. “It’s a world catastrophe, Sarah,” he said. “If something happens to America…I mean…when it is in crisis, the rest of the world is affected too.”
“I don’t understand,” she said angrily, as if Matt were somehow responsible.
John looked from one parent to the other. “Did America get bombed?” he asked.
Matt turned to him and put his arm around him. “Yes, son,” he said.
“So, why doesn’t our car work in Ireland?” he asked.
“That’s what I would like to know, too,” Sarah said, as she knelt in the dirt picking up the contents of her purse.
“If England was bombed too—” Matt said, waving his hand in the air.
“Did you hear they were?”
“No, but they’re our allies, and if they were hit,” Matt said, “Ireland is close enough to be affected.”
For a moment, no one spoke.
“That big flash that just happened,” Sarah said. “Was that us getting bombed?”
“I don’t know, Sarah,” Matt said. “Maybe.”
Sarah stared at the car as if she were in a trance. “I guess this answers any question of evacuating to Limerick,” she said, turning and moving slowly in the direction of the porch steps.
“Or anywhere else,” Matt said, looking toward the dusky blue horizon.
“So, now do we ride?” John said brightly.
The first day had been the hardest.
The terror and insecurity of knowing just enough and nothing more was literally almost more than Sarah could bear.
Were their homes bombed? Was Washington still there? Were her parents still alive? The frustration of no news—of not being able to do anything while death and destruction dismantled their country—was an agony. All she could think was: we have to do something!
The town of Balinagh was ten miles away—too far to comfortably walk over rough and rocky Irish back roads—but there was no other way of getting there.
“Why can’t we ride?” John asked for the hundredth time.
“John, please stop asking me that,” Sarah said. “We don’t know if these horses are used to being ridden—”
“There are saddles all over the barn.”
“But if they haven’t been ridden in a while,” Sarah replied as patiently as she could without screaming, “they’ll be too difficult for us to handle.”
“Not for you,” he said stubbornly.
“It’s been too long since I rode,” she said. “I’m too rusty to be jumping on some horse I don’t know.”
“They seem gentle,” Matt offered.
Sarah stood up from the porch step where she had been sitting.
“Both of you, listen to me,” she said with exasperation. “They might be gentle on the ground but hell on wheels once you’re in the saddle.”
“Why don’t we try one out in the paddock?” Matt looked at his son who nodded enthusiastically.
“Matt, are you serious?” She looked at him with horror. “And what if one of us breaks something? Are you going to set the bone? Horses are not like golf carts, you know. They have minds of their own.”
So that day they walked into town. In slightly less than four hours, they arrived tired, foot sore, blistered, and thirsty.
The first person they met was Siobhan Scahill, the dairy and pub owner.
“Sure, why would you be walking and you with three big horses just standing around?” she said as soon as they walked into her grocery shop which was lighted only by the daylight coming in through the big shop windows.
Sarah wanted to slap her.
“Mom says we need to take things slow,” John replied.
“Sure, it’s slow you’ll be taking things, all right,” the woman said. She reached over and tousled John’s hair. “But I’m sorry for your troubles. Sure, the Americans are a hard lot to take for the most part but we love ‘em, God knows we do. My own boy, Michael, lives in New Jersey.”
Sarah tried not to break down crying right in the store.
“Have you heard from him?” Matt asked. “Or any news at all?”
The woman shook her head. “Sure, no,” she said. “Just something terrible bad, that’s for sure. The telly went out about two hours ago with the rest of the power.” She indicated the dark overhead light fixtures. “My Michael is hard to locate at the best of times. If I don’t hear from him in another few weeks, I’ll start to worry.” She nodded to the shelves in her store. “People have already come to stock up and I don’t expect much in the way of deliveries, now do I? What took you so long to come to town?”
“We woulda driven,” John said. “But our car won’t start.”
“No, nor anybody else’s,” Siobhann said. “Although Jimmy Hennessey did say he got his tractor to working.”
“You’ve got nothing at all?” Matt asked, looking about the store. “No milk, no cans of stuff?”
“Sorry, no,” she shook her head. “I’m dead cleaned out. But you’re staying at the McKinney place, aren’t you?”
“McGutherie,” Sarah said.
“McGutherie’s burned down last year,” Siobhan said.
“I’m sure it’s the McKinney place you’re at now,” Siobhan said. “Friends of the McGutherie’s. More of a weekend cabin, not really a tourist rental?”
“That explains a lot.”
“But you’ve got the goat, don’t you?”
“There’s a goat?” John said.
“Sure, there’s a goat and sheep and didn’t Mary McKinney keep a stocked root cellar? Have you looked?”
Matt gave his wife’s shoulders a squeeze. “We’ll look,” he said. “Where are the McGuthries now?”
“They’ll be living in London, won’t they?”
“But the emails I got from her said there were caretakers. We don’t know how to take care of horses, or where to wash our clothes—” Sarah felt the panic blossom in her chest.
“Well, sure you’ll be needing to take care of the horses. Don’t tell me the poor things haven’t eaten since you’ve arrived?”
“They’ve eaten some grass,” John offered.
“I suppose there’s horse feed in this root cellar, too?” Matt said.
“And the caretakers?” Sarah persisted, refusing to be shamed by the woman.
“I’ll not be knowing anything about any caretakers,” she said. “Unless it’s yourselves.”
“We’re the caretakers. Great.”
“Who’s been taking care of the horses until now?” Matt asked.
“Likely that would be the Kennedys. They live about five miles the other side. Now they know you’re there, they’ll leave it to you, I imagine.”
“How much for this lantern?” Matt pointed to a kerosene lantern sitting high up on a corner shelf.
“Sure, there’s bound to be ten of ‘em at Cairn Cottage,” the woman said.
“That’s the name of our place?” Sarah asked.
“I’d like it all the same,” Matt said, reaching for his wallet. “And I see you still have matches and a jug of kerosene.”
As Matt and the shopkeeper busied themselves filling a small but essential shopping bag, Sarah stepped outside and looked down the deserted village street. John followed her.
“Will we get rickets?” he asked her.
“Rickets. We read about it in school. When you don’t get fresh fruit and stuff your bones start to go bad.”
“No. We’ll find fresh fruit and vegetables.”
“How about a hamburger?”
“That may be a bit trickier.”
A few moments later, Matt joined them.
“She said she’ll hold our lantern and fuel ‘til we’re ready to leave. There’s a little restaurant down the way,” he nodded down the street. “Siobhan thinks they’re still serving. Guess the locals don’t eat out much.”
“Yeah, she’s not really awful. In fact, I think she means to be helpful. Just Irish-y.”
“Let’s eat, guys,” John said, pulling his parents down the street.
Sarah walked ahead of Matt. Maybe because she didn’t look like she was walking with anyone, a man coming toward them in the opposite direction got eye contact. Her first impulse was to smile, as she might at the drive-through cashiers of a fast food restaurant, so it startled her when the man leered back. He was thin and young and dirty. Sarah noted his filthy beard and scruffy clothes which looked like he’d slept in them. She smelled him as he walked past. Stung by his visual assault, she turned to get Matt’s attention as the man passed.
“Did you see that?” she said. But Matt was looking at the shuttered and dark village windows. He met her eyes with a distracted, vacant look that told her he wasn’t listening or even seeing her.
Peeved and tired by the already long day, Sarah shook off her annoyance and focused on keeping up with her son.
“Wait for us, John,” she called, hurrying to catch up with him and leaving Matt to his private reflections.
Later that afternoon, stuffed with mutton and potatoes, they collected their purchases from Siobhan’s store and made the long walk home. John was tired and fretful. Sarah began limping before they had turned the first corner out of town. And Matt’s shoulders were aching from carrying the heavy bag by the time, four and a half hours later, they finally walked into the front court of Cairn Cottage at twilight.
Matt opened the door to the dark interior of the cottage. He went in first and set the bag down. “Power is definitely out,” he called to them. “Give me a sec to get the lantern lit.”
“I’m tired, Mom.” John sighed heavily.
Sarah wrapped her arms around him, grateful they were so far away from the destruction and confusion of what was happening at home, and then feeling instantly anxious about her parents and what they might be experiencing at that very moment. It seemed like such a basic, little thing, she thought, to have a warm, well-lit place in which to curl up tonight. “I know, angel,” she said. “Just a few more seconds and you’ll be in bed.”
A few moments later, the one room of the cottage glowed warmly from the kerosene lantern.
“We’re good, family,” Matt said.
Later that night, as John slept soundly in the big bed, Sarah and Matt sat on the porch with the lantern between them and finished off a bottle of Pinot Noir.
“I can’t imagine what’s happening at home,” Sarah said, shivering in her heavy sweater.
“And you don’t have any theories about what happened? That’s so unlike you.”
Matt sighed. “From what I saw,” he said, speaking deliberately as if carefully choosing every word, “and from what Siobhan heard from other people in the area, I think what happened is that a nuclear bomb exploded over London or maybe the Irish Sea.”
“Oh, my dear God.”
“And the reason that’s my best guess,” he said, putting his arm around Sarah and giving her a reassuring squeeze, “is because of the big flash we saw earlier and because none of our electronics work any more.”
“Nuclear radiation did this?”
“No, it’s called electromagnetic pulse. It’s hard to explain but the results of it are what we’re experiencing now.”
“If it is this electromagnetic thing, how long until things get back to normal?”
“Everything has to be rebuilt,” he said. “All the cellphone towers are fried, all the cars, the power grid. It’s a total destruction of the infrastructure.”
Sarah stared out into the dark Irish night. “Oh, my God,” she said, her voice a whisper.
“I’m sure everyone is already working on rebuilding things,” he said. “But it will take time.”
“In the meantime,” Sarah said, “We’re safe?” She looked at him for confirmation.
“We’re safe,” he said.
She tilted her face up to her husband. They kissed and then sat in silence a moment. Sarah could see Matt was working something out in his mind. As the wife of a philosophy professor, she was used to long bouts of silence between them as he mulled through complex thought.
“What are you thinking?” she asked.
“Just wondering,” he said, rubbing her arm and looking out into the black Irish night. “Where do you imagine that damn goat is?”
When they awoke the next morning, Sarah made cheese sandwiches and mugs of tea for breakfast. The first thing they did was locate the root cellar. They found potatoes, two cases of a decent Côte de Rhône, three bags of flour, sweet feed for the horses, and several dozen tins of meat.
Matt dragged a bag of feed and the three of them went into the stables. It was obvious that the horses’ stalls had not been mucked out for weeks.
“Oh, shit,” Sarah said when she saw it.
“Literally,” Matt said.
“What do we do?” John asked, holding his nose.
“First, we get them out of there to someplace where they won’t run away so we can feed them and clean out their stalls,” Sarah said. “I’ll do one and you do two,” she said to Matt. “And you stay out of the way so you don’t get kicked,” she said to John.
She took a leather halter off the hook in front of the first stall.
“I can’t believe we’re on our own with these animals,” she said. “Unbelievable.”
She opened the first stall door. The name “Dan” was on a tarnished metal plaque on the door.
“Whoa, there, Dan,” she said as she stepped into the stall. “Just gonna arrange breakfast and do a linen change, big guy.” Carefully, she approached the horse and slipped the halter over his head. “Hand me the lead, would you, Matt?”
He looked around.
“It’s like a big rope or leash,” she said, buckling the halter. The horse was big, at least seventeen hands. He was a dark bay with a blaze on his forehead. She was grateful for his calmness and tried to force herself to relax.
He handed her the leather lead he had found hanging on the wall. She clipped the lead to the halter and led the horse out of the stall. “We’ll just put them all in the paddock while we clean up,” she said. “God, it’s a mess in there. My shoes are already ruined.”
She stood, frozen for a moment, staring at the manure and holding the rope attached to the horse. “What are we going to do, Matt?”
“I thought you said we needed to remove them first,” Matt said, frowning.
“No, I mean about everything,” Sarah said. She looked over her shoulder to make sure John was still outside tossing the ball he had found against the wall of the house. “Don’t you think we should try to get to Limerick? There should be an American consulate there.”
“Sarah, no.” Matt shook his head emphatically. “If this was some kind of nuclear bomb that went off then there could be a risk of nuclear contamination in the cities.”
“I don’t think staying here is a good idea,” she said. She looked around for a place to tie up the horse. She knew she was telegraphing her anxiety and frustration to him. He had started to stamp his feet and that made her more nervous. “We can’t even feed ourselves here. I want us to go to Limerick.”
“Okay, Sarah, that’s crazy. How are we going to get there? Walk? It’s like two hundred miles or something.”
“You just made that up!”
“It doesn’t matter how far away it is,” he said, jabbing the pitchfork into a pile of manure and narrowly missing his topsider. “Even if the cities aren’t radioactive, it’s still a bad idea. For one thing, Americans aren’t going to be too popular wherever we go.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean whatever has happened, it’s because of us. You get that, right? Either someone did this to us and the UK is paying the price of being our friend, or we retaliated. But however it went down it still adds up to the Americans being the ones at the center of this disaster.”
Sarah stared at him, the will to fight left her as the realization of what he was saying began to sink in.
“Should we…should we stay away from town, do you think? There are no laws now to protect us.” She clasped her hands as the fear sifted through her. “Should we stay out of Balinagh even?”
“I don’t know,” Mat said, picking up the pitchfork again. “But I do think we’re safer here in the country on a whole bunch of different levels.”
“Mom, I saw rubber boots in the room where all the saddles are hanging.”
Sarah hadn’t noticed John enter the barn and wondered how much he had heard.
“Oh, thanks, sweetie,” she said. She gave Matt a this-isn’t-over look and untied the horse, Dan, to lead him out to the paddock.
“See if there are a pair for me, too,” Matt called after her.
An hour later, all the horses had been fed and their stalls cleaned. Matt threw the pitchfork onto the muck cart and pulled the cart behind the barn where there was a huge pile of manure.
“I wonder if I have a job to go home to,” he said to himself as he dumped the steaming horseshit onto the pile.
“I guess we won’t know until communications have been restored.” Sarah came up behind him, and wiped her hands on a towel.
He looked up at her. “That might take months.”
“And you think we should just live here in the meantime?”
“Got any better ideas?”
She looked at the pile of horse manure. “My God, how our lives have changed in the blink of an eye.”
“Come on,” he said, grabbing the cart to steer it back around the barn. “Let’s find the damn goat.”
The goat was in the pasture with a kid.
John was delighted. “Isn’t he cute, Mom?” He laughed as the baby goat jumped around him.
“Does this mean we can’t milk her?” Sarah asked.
“Were you going to milk her?” Matt asked with surprise.
“Well, I assume that’s what Siobhan meant when we said we needed milk and she referenced the goat.”
Matt laughed. “God, this keeps getting weirder and weirder.”
“Do we let them run wild out here?” She looked at the huge pasture. “I mean, is this where they live?”
“Beats the heck out of me,” he replied, running his fingers through his hair.
“Do we feed them? Can’t make very nice milk if we don’t feed them grain, do you think?”
“Sarah, I have no idea,” Matt replied. “I’m a city boy.”
“Lotta help that is!” she said, laughing. “Just what I need on a farm in rural Ireland in the middle of a damn blackout with no food and no clue—a damn philosophy professor.”
He started to grin. “Well, I suppose I could analyze the bigger questions here.”
“Yeah, that’d be helpful,” she said. “God knows, you’ll have time to do it, too.”
They both laughed.
“Are you guys okay?” John asked, frowning. He was holding the squirming kid in his arms.
“We’re losing it!” Sarah said, still laughing.
“Well, I wish you’d both chill,” he said. “You’ve got a child to think of.” Which just set them off even more, with Matt holding his sides and tears coursing down his face.
That night they ate salted baked potatoes without butter and canned meat from the root cellar that looked and tasted like shredded Spam. John revisited his rickets question.
“Look,” his mother said. “It’s only September so there should be berry patches somewhere. Tomorrow we’ll go looking. And there’s a jar of jam in the cabinet—”
“With nothing to put it on,” John complained.
“I’m going to make bread tomorrow,” Sarah said.
“You are?” Matt asked.
“We’ve got salt and water and bags of flour in the cellar. I don’t think I even need yeast to make it work.”
“Eggs would be good,” Matt said as he got up to clear the table. “I wonder if we can meet up with our neighbors and maybe trade something for some eggs.”
“How do we cook ‘em?” Sarah asked. “We’ll need butter or lard. This is all so difficult.”
“Let’s just take this one step at a time.”
“Who knows we’re here?” John asked.
“What do you mean? Our whole family knows we’re in Ireland.”
“What if they’ve all been killed?”
“Don’t even say that, John. Our family is fine, I know it. They’re probably working right this minute to try to get us home.”
“What if it’s worse for them? Maybe they don’t even have a house? At least we have a roof.”
The rain began again as if to underscore the point.
“Trust me, sweetie,” Sarah said as she kissed him. “If no one comes for us, we’ll get out and back home on our own somehow.”
“Absolutely.” She looked at Matt and he nodded at John.
“Promise, son,” he said.
Sometime in the middle of the night, Sarah put a hand out to touch her husband’s shoulder but felt only the cold place where his body had been in the bed. She saw his silhouette as he stood at the living room window. She watched him staring out into the dark night. She knew there was nothing to see.
Watching him, she could feel the anxiety and tension pinging off him in waves. “Matt?” she whispered.
He turned but made no move toward the bed. “Go back to sleep, Sarah,” he said. “I’ll be there in a bit.” His voice sounded hoarse and muffled—as if he’d been crying.
Sarah lay back down but now she couldn’t sleep either.
I hope you’ll check out the rest of Free Falling as well as the rest of the Irish End Game series, and that you’ll drop me a line to let me know what you thought of it. It is available as an e-book and in paperback.