Year of the Dead-Chapter 15
Chapter 15: Helen Hansen, September 16th, Year 0
My name is Helen Hansen. Five days ago the world had ended and my mother wanted to know why I didn’t have a boyfriend. I was on Skype with my family in Nebraska.
“Mom, I’m in a barricade surrounded by thousands of zombies. I really do have more pressing problems than not having a boyfriend.”
“Honey, first it was getting a college degree, then it was getting a PhD from MIT, then it was because you needed to get tenure, now its zombies. Sounds to me, you keep on finding excuses.”
I started laughing. The last five days had been so stressful. Like always, talking to my family was making me laugh and want to tear out my hair at the same time. What was so infuriating and so funny about this conversation was that my mother was serious.
I had been on Skype with my family in Nebraska almost every day since March 21st, when my father called me and asked me to quit my job as a tenured professor in the Engineering department of the University of Utah. My father is the CEO of one of the largest incorporated family farms in the United States. All six of my younger brothers work for the family corporation. Almost all family-owned farms in the United States lose money. Every year the average age of farmers gets older as their children leave the farm. My family’s farm has consistently been one of the most profitable in the United States.
Each year, when my father is planning the next year’s crop, he has to predict what the government will do, global politics, the weather in Nebraska, and the global weather. The difference between successful and failed farmers is in how well they plan for the future. My father has been successful enough in his predictions that almost every year he made enough profits to buy more land. Some of his success was based on luck but most of it was based on his attention to any news that could affect the future prices of crops.
My father had been watching the situation in Kenya since January when the first rumors of zombies came out. He had been following the media stories about the zombie outbreaks, and using Google Earth and a paid satellite service to look at satellite pictures of the zombie-affected areas. In the past, before the zombie outbreaks, he had used satellite images to research how much corn and soybeans were being planted and harvested in the world. My father noticed immediately that as soon as a zombie outbreak occurred, the nighttime views from satellites showed almost a complete absence of artificial lighting. Since all communication from the zombie-outbreak areas stopped within hours of the outbreak, no one knew what was taking out the power and communication, but it had to be more than zombies. Until governments understood what was going on, he didn’t think they would be able to stop the spread of zombies.
My father is a rich man and has always contributed the maximum allowable to politicians’ campaign funds, both as an individual and through our family corporation. He had spoken to both of Nebraska’s senators and he wasn’t convinced that any government including the US could effectively prevent the spread of the zombie outbreak. He told me that he was only going to plant enough seed to cover overhead this year. He was going to use all the money that he had available to prepare for a zombie outbreak in the US. He wanted me to quit my job and move back to Nebraska.
I love my family, but there is a reason I moved from Nebraska when I was 18 to go to college and never moved back. I love my family but I love them from a distance. Every holiday I spent in Nebraska, every 3rd relative and in-law would ask when I was going to get married and have a family. The idea that a heterosexual woman could be content to be single in her 30s just didn’t make sense to my family. No one ever asked me when I was visiting if I was gay, but I know my family. They were concerned about that possibility. My mother is a matriarch. She is smart and competent and is my father’s main advisor and is the only person in our family who can overrule my father. She couldn’t understand why any woman would want to be single and not have a family. I won’t say that death was preferable to living the rest of my life surrounded by relatives, but I’ve thought it often.
My father had proven his ability to accurately predict the future year after year. I knew that a zombie outbreak in the US was a possibility and I would make preparations for such a possibility. I was going to hope, however, that it wouldn’t happen and I wasn’t about to give up my career.
In the five years I’ve been living in Utah, I’ve made some close friends but none of them were in my field. Most of my friends were in the Humanities departments. I was the only female professor in Engineering. My male colleagues are older and married and it didn’t help that I had gotten my PhD at an unusually young age from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and by the time I got my assistant professor’s position, I had two patents that were making me close to six figures in royalties a year. Office politics in academia are always ugly and for a variety of reasons none of the people I was close to were in my department.
People outside Utah know that it’s one of the reddest states in the union, and think is filled with polygamist Mormons. The rest of Utah may be largely Republican but Salt Lake County, like most urban areas, is reliably Democratic and almost all Salt Lake City mayors are Democratic. There are lots of universities in Utah but the ones with a strong rivalry are the University of Utah, a public school, and Brigham Young University, a private school run by the LDS Church. Few of the professors at the University of Utah, especially in the Humanities departments, are Mormons.
My friends in the Humanities departments at the University were mostly single women; the ones who were married were childless. They all reliably vote Democrat; I do too. We all had the typical academic political beliefs and lifestyles. The only difference between me and my friends was that I didn’t believe conservatives were stupid. I know if I directly asked any one of my friends whether they Republicans were dumber than Democrats, they would answer ‘no,’ but that wasn’t the way most of them acted.
When they found out that I had grown up on a farm and that my family still ran it, most of my friends asked if I was the first person in my family to get an education. My father is a farmer who earned an MBA from Harvard, and who runs a multimillion-dollar corporation. Two of my brothers have PhDs and three of them have Masters Degrees. The only reason my youngest brother doesn’t have a post-graduate degree is because he just graduated from college. I was amazed to find that all my friends at the University seemed to believe that it took no intelligence to run a successful farm or business. I am a liberal myself but it became clear to me that most highly-educated liberals think that conservatives are either unintelligent (i.e., Bush) or evil (i.e., Cheney). I’m the first and only Hansen in three generations to be a registered Democrat, but the rest of my family is neither stupid nor evil.
When it became clear in mid-April that all of Europe was overrun with zombies, it seemed the only conversation that anyone had was whether they thought there would be a zombie outbreak in the US, and if there was, what they were going to do about it. My friends separated into three main camps: one planned on going to a government-designated disaster center that was not fortified or supplied with weapons; the second refused to believe that the US government wouldn’t be able to prevent a zombie outbreak; and the third decided to form a co-op and set up their own shelter. Progress on the co-op was held up by a bitter argument between those who wanted to arm the co-op and those who thought that having guns in a small enclosure was more dangerous than zombies. After all, guns hadn’t prevented zombies from overrunning Africa and Europe.
I realized then that if there was a zombie outbreak in Utah, most of my friends would die. I decided to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. I would keep my job at the University and hope that we didn’t get a zombie outbreak, but I would also join a group that had a reasonable chance of surviving.
The only Mormon whom I knew well was Orville Johnson, a professor of philosophy. I had worked with him for a year on an advisory council at the University. I figured that if any organization would survive a zombie attack, it would be the Mormons. I knew that every ward practiced disaster relief even before the zombie outbreaks, and that many Mormon families stored a year’s supply of food at their homes in case of a disaster. I contacted him and found out that he was the Bishop of the ward that was just a few blocks from my house. I asked him if I could shelter in the ward with him in case of a zombie attack. I made it clear to him that I was not religious and that I had no intentions of converting to Mormonism, but that if I was allowed a place in his ward, I would volunteer at least 30 hours a week of my time setting up wireless cell phone and satellite communications for his ward and the LDS Church. He told me that every ward had a ham radio and one or two radio operators, so it wasn’t absolutely necessary to have additional communication options, but that it wouldn’t hurt, and I could have a place in his ward.
I spent the next couple of months setting up the Forest Dale First Ward with satellite data access. I even set the phone system up so that if the landline to the ward went off-line, it would automatically connect through the satellite. I thought it would be a good idea to set the ward to handle Skype communications with other wards nearby so that separate wards could coordinate by video conferencing if they needed to. I set up wireless cameras around and in our ward, and by early September had also set up wireless cameras in the two wards closest to us. I set up the cameras to be accessible from all three wards.
All this work actually was fun. As a professor, I had theoretical knowledge of all the things I was doing but had never had an opportunity to put them into practice before. Working full-time at the University, followed by 30 hours a week in the evenings and weekends at the ward, kept me busy.
My closest friend in Utah was Cecilia Swanson, also a professor at the University. She specialized in modern French Literature. Before the zombies, we were so close that we described each other as sisters who had been separated at birth. She took my decision to shelter in an LDS ward as a betrayal and a rejection of her personally. She was one of the first organizers of the co-op and she was the foremost proponent of not bringing guns into the shelter. She was adamant that guns only caused harm and never did any good. She constantly brought up the fact that guns had failed to prevent the outbreaks from spreading in Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. I told her that refusing to use guns because of what happened in Africa and Europe was the equivalent of saying that since every defeated army in the past hundred years had used guns, not using guns would win wars. Cecilia called me a condescending bitch, and since that argument on June 6th we had stopped talking completely.
The US government set up barbed wire and armed guards all along the Mexican border. All deployed Navy fleets were recalled to guard our coasts, and the US was working closely with the Canadians. But basically nothing was being done to help civilians prepare. The only useful thing the Federal Government did was to set up AM and FM radio stations all across the US. They were kept silent, but if there was an outbreak, an emergency signal would be broadcast. Every American citizen was encouraged to be within hearing distance of a radio tuned to one of these stations at all times.
I was allowed to store a small number of personal belongings and clothing at the Forest Dale First Ward. I was spending so much time after work there that I filled up all my allotted storage by June. On the night of September 11th, I woke up to the sound of an emergency broadcast. I slept in a t-shirt and sweat pants so I didn’t have to take time to get dressed. I only had to pick up a backpack filled with supplies and run to the ward. I made it in less than 15 minutes. There was a stream of cars and pedestrians coming to the ward; I was one of the first ones to enter the gates. Art Bingham, the First Counselor, arrived at the same time I did. He was the man at the ward primarily responsible for disaster preparations, and I had been working closely with him for months.
Art was a really good guy but had a jealous wife. It took only one excruciatingly polite meeting with her to get the message that he was hers and that I was to keep my hands off. I took particular care to talk to Art only when other people were around and made it a point not to wear makeup or flattering clothes. I noticed within a few days that almost all Mormon women took special care to look their best when they were at the ward. I wanted to make clear to all of them that I wasn’t interested in their men. Men think they are territorial; women are territorial.
I was really glad that it was Art instead of Hiram Rockwell at the gate. Some of the people entering our gate weren’t supposed to be there, but Art understood that trying to turn people back, especially in cars, would create a massive slow-down. I’m pretty sure Hiram would have tried to keep some of these people out. Art asked me to help his wife and daughter to pack cars in as tight as possible. In addition to the cars, there was a stream of families who lived close enough to walk to the ward. Due to the traffic, it was probably quicker for most people to walk.
I was still helping direct cars when I heard gunfire. The gates had been closed and there were still people outside. I heard screaming and could see zombies attacking. I was next to a car when its rear passenger-side door opened. A zombie came out. I screamed for help. Stacy, Art’s wife, may be jealous but she’s also fearless. She ran over and grabbed the zombie’s right arm. I grabbed the zombie’s left. Neither of us was armed. The zombie lurched from one of us to the other, trying to bite us. Stacy was crying and screeching at the top of her lungs but she didn’t let go and neither did I. She had an amazingly loud voice. Her son Peter came running up to us holding a military style assault rifle. He placed the barrel of the gun into the zombie’s mouth and shot. The back of the zombie’s head blew out and it dropped. I hugged Stacy. Both of us were crying. She had saved my life.
Stacy then turned to Peter and hugged him so hard he almost dropped his rifle. He kept on saying “Mom, you got to let me go. I need to go shoot more zombies.” I went over to them and tugged on Stacy’s arm.
“Stacy, we have to gather all the people without guns and get them into a secure location. Peter, some zombies have made it into the fence. You have to go with us and make sure they don’t hurt anyone.”
We got everyone without a gun into the chapel. They were mostly women and children. Only one more zombie had made it into our fence and by the time we saw it, it had already been shot by a woman with a handgun. Once it was clear that we didn’t have any zombies with us in the chapel, Peter left to join the rest of the men at the gates. Most of the people in the chapel started to pray. I went and got my laptop and tried to get into contact with the two other wards I had set up for video conferencing. I couldn’t get anyone on Skype, so I went to the video feeds from the cameras I had set up at the other wards.
The closest ward to us was on Downington Ave, just a few blocks north of us. The cameras showed that the zombies had been able to enter the enclosure. Humans were fighting back but were being overrun. The same thing was happening at the ward several blocks east of us. I was able to go back a few minutes on the video from the Downington Ave and 1200 East wards to be able to see what happened.
At Downington Ave, the ward members at the gates had attempted to turn the people who weren’t supposed to be there back. These people resisted and blocked the gate. By the time the zombies arrived, there were so many people trying to get into the gates they couldn’t be closed in time. At the 1200 East ward, the ward members had kept the gates open too long. No one at their gates had been willing to close them as long as other ward members were still outside. Their compassion for those ward members allowed the zombies to overrun their gates.
Our ham radio operator had not made it into our enclosure in time. I wasn’t an expert radio operator but I was able to get in touch with four other wards in the Salt Lake region and a couple of other wards north and south of us. The reach of ham radios depends on the weather and sun-spot activity. We should have been able to contact wards in multiple states pretty consistently, and on occasion, we should have been able to reach wards on the west coast. For some unexplainable reason, the ham radios could only reach wards within a few hundred miles of us.
All of the surviving wards had had to shut the gates on many of their ward members to survive. All of the upper-level LDS Church members, the General Authorities, should have been in secure locations and they certainly should have had ham operators available but none of them could be reached. Within a few hours of the zombie outbreak, the power went out and we had to start up our generators. Around the same time, all the landline phones went offline. Fortunately, cell phones kept working and we still had access to the internet through the satellite connection that I had set up. Within 24 hours of the zombie outbreak, all television, cable, and radio stations that had live coverage were off the air. Only prerecorded broadcasts were available.
The only way to explain how rapidly we lost all media coverage, the electrical grid, landlines, and landline-based internet was sabotage. If you knew what you were doing, it wasn’t very hard to wipe out our electrical infrastructure. Large-scale electrical black-outs had happened in the past by accident. On August 14th, 2003, it took only one failed electrical line in Ohio to wipe out power to close to 55 million people in northeastern US and Ontario, Canada, for two days. If our infrastructure were attacked by knowledgeable terrorists, it would be fairly simple, with targeted attacks on the electrical infrastructure in just a few locations, to wipe out the entire landline-based electrical grid in the United States. Landline-based phones for similar reasons would be as easy to take out. Because cell phones used separate physically-disconnected towers which often had battery and solar panel backups, cell phone systems were more difficult to sabotage. Without a functional electrical grid, even with some cell towers up and functioning, anything close to normal cell phone volume would have made cell phones useless, but with the loss of life that had occurred in the last few days, normal volume was not an issue. For obvious reasons, it was much more difficult to wipe out satellites. The lack of all communications from the Federal and local governments had to be due to sabotage. Our inability to contact the LDS General Authorities couldn’t be explained in any other way.
On the 12th, both of Orville Johnson’s sons disappeared, and the next night Orville and his wife went missing. That same day our ward ran out of ammo. The good news was that, for now, cell phones still worked. Art couldn’t get into contact with his daughter who lived in Washington, DC, but was able to establish cell phone contact with his daughter who lived in Provo, Utah. Both Art and I had encouraged all ward members to bring their laptops to the ward and I was able to get Skype working on most of them. A small number of us were able to contact friends and family members who had access to generator power and wireless internet access.
The mood in the ward was grim. None of us had expected much help from the Federal or state governments, but we had been expecting to have guidance and help from the LDS General Authorities and the other wards around us. I coped by trying to help the other women and children in the ward in small ways. Stacy, the woman that had saved my life, was frantic because we had lost complete communications with Washington, DC, where her oldest daughter and her only grandchild had been living. She asked me what it meant that we couldn’t raise her daughter’s ward in DC. I looked into her eyes and lied to her. I told her that there were a number of technical reasons that could explain why we had lost our ability to communicate with her daughter’s ward, even though they were doing well. Stacy knew the most likely explanation. Stacy didn’t want the truth from me; she wanted comfort. Thankfully, Stacy’s other daughter in Provo was doing well and she was able to speak to her every day by cell phone.
I helped as many people as I could use the internet or the satellite phone system I had set up to contact friends and family members. I got a gaming system up on a server that I had set up in the ward so that any child, teenager, or adult could hook up into it to play games against each other. None of us had any place to go or any real chores that we had to do. We had enough food and water. The LDS Church emergency planners had everything planned out, including food, water, and waste disposal, for three months for 800 people. We even had little 3-gallon solar showers available. We took showers in the bathrooms so we had to use cold water but it was better than any other alternative. Only 400 or so of us were in the enclosure, so we were good for six months, but we had nothing to do. The tension in the ward was intense, and setting up computer games helped to decrease some of it.
Stacy and I became close. We had nothing in common, but during Armageddon that didn’t seem to matter. It was strange, but getting to know Stacy helped me deal with my mom. Stacy and my mom were similar in many ways. Both of them put their families first over everything else and neither had any problems embarrassing their children in public. Because I wasn’t related to her, it was easier to see that Stacy loved her children intensely, even when she was fighting with them or embarrassing them. I kept on telling myself every time I talked to my mom, ‘She’s doing this because she loves me.’ It helped a little.
Even with the friendship I had developed with Stacy, I was lonely. It was normal for Mormons to dress up when they went to church, and even under the current circumstances most of the women wore makeup and dresses. It was a way of holding on to what was normal for them. It wasn’t normal for me. I almost never wore makeup anyway and I certainly wasn’t going to wear a dress in the middle of zombies. As time went on, the differences between me and the other women seemed to get more obvious and I felt even more isolated.
I wish my last conversation with Cecilia had gone better. Before the 11th, I could always say that there was time to make things right; now there wasn’t any time left. I missed my best friend. I was the only single woman with a graduate degree in our enclosure. Mormon girls get married young and all the other women here were married with children and families to look after and be concerned about. I didn’t have anyone. Cecilia wouldn’t have gotten along with anybody else here besides me, but I still wished I had her around. I never had any privacy– there were too many people crammed in too small a place for privacy — but I’ve never felt more alone.
Every day since the 11th, I had been able to talk to my family. They live in north-central Nebraska, between Atkinson (population of fewer than 1300) and Bassett (population of fewer than 800). Atkinson was 124 miles away from Norfolk, which had a population of around 24,000. Zombies weren’t a major problem for my folks. Even if the entire populations of both Atkinson and Bassett had become zombies, my family and their employees could have handled them. As it was, our family compound was attacked by a few dozen zombies on the 11th, which were easily taken care of. Unlike Salt Lake, where many people had spontaneously turned into zombies, none of my family members or any of their employees had turned. The first thing my father did, once it was clear that the zombie outbreak had reached the United States, was to contact me.
My father and I both knew that in a few days or at most a week or two, the battery power that was keeping the remaining cell phone towers going would die. The only thing that was keeping cell phones working so far was the lack of normal usage. I had set up an internet server in the ward and both the ward and my father’s farm had internet access through satellites. Theoretically, my father and I could stay in contact for as long as our power held out and the satellites stayed functional, but nothing was certain anymore, and all sorts of things that should never have happened had already happened. Every day that I spoke to my family could be the last time.
My mother had never been able to understand that I was happy with my career and that I did not need a husband or children to be fulfilled. Now that every conversation we had could be our last, she had decided that she had to discuss everything she had ever wanted to talk about with me. Yesterday, she had asked me if I was gay. You have to understand that there were about 400 people in the enclosure with me. Since the disappearance of the Johnsons, everyone had basically been staying in just two rooms: the chapel and the gymnasium. I was never alone when I was on Skype with my parents. Because of the noise, I used a headset and microphone when I talked to my mother so only my side of our conversations could be heard, but you have no idea how mortifying it is to say “No mom, I’m not gay” in public. My father in his own way wasn’t much better. Growing up, since I was his only daughter, he had treated me like a princess. Even though I was now in my 30s, he still treated me like a child who needed to be protected. There were many reasons I wasn’t in Nebraska.
Yesterday, mom was focused on my sexuality. Today, she was interested in figuring out why I didn’t have a boyfriend. I guess I should have been grateful to her. Instead of being afraid of dying, like I should have been, I was terrified of what she would talk about next.
In the middle of my conversation with my mother, the phone to the ward rang. I switched over the phone number to the ward’s land line to a satellite phone. I used this call as an excuse to end my conversation with my mother.
“Hello, this is Mark Jones, Director of Federal Emergency services in Utah. May I ask who I’m talking to?”
“I’m Helen Hansen, the head of communications.”
“Ms. Hansen, may I speak to whoever is in charge there?”