The King of Michigan
My family still lived in the Lakelands, what used to be northern Minnesota and Canada, maybe with a little Wisconsin. Nothing near there was hit in the collapse, and the citizens were pretty independent. I hadn’t been back in half a dozen years. When my cousin Connor arrived and told me my uncle was dead, I didn’t think much of it. Then he told me the funeral was in the Lakelands, and the family wanted me to come.
“In case you didn’t notice, I’m needed around here.”
“They said they want you to come back.”
“Have you noticed the street gangs or any bandits since you got to my side of the lake?”
“No,” he said, “I actually didn’t see any.”
“That’s because of me,” I told him, “I’ve got a whole fucking state to run, and gangs are still roaming Detroit like fucking post-apocalyptic roaches.”
“Look, the highways are safe that far north, and it will only take you three days or so to get there and three days back. You’ve got to have a Vice President or something who can keep the place from falling apart for a week or two.”
I stood in the back of the crowd, waiting for it to be over. The rest seemed captivated by the preacher’s ranting. Rapture, apocalypse, Fire-and-Brimstone, Second Coming, the whole nine. Not the usual funeral shtick at least. The casket was closed, the body too disfigured to display at the funeral. The preacher was wrapping up. What a brave man. What a beloved man. What a great man… What a load of crap.
The man was a deceitful crook whose biggest accomplishment was swindling the hot-air balloon from the poor bastard who owned it before. He then came up with the brilliant business plan of gouging tourists for a ride over the Grand Canyon. Of course he was going to wind up getting killed. He was a scam artist, a dirt-bag, and an asshole. The fact that his Will specified he be buried under the willow at the old family lake house so we’d all have to come to the funeral was just like him. How he was able to arrange transport 1400 miles home across national borders and endless no-man’s land was beyond me.
Inside, after the funeral, I was trying to avoid having to speak to anyone by moving around, pretending to be interested in the clay pots or the paintings my sister had decorated the lake house with.
“James,” came the voice from behind me. I turned around.
“Dad,” I answered, “Sorry about uncle Jimmy.”
“Bound to happen sooner or later,” he said, “heard you’re having trouble with Detroit.”
“It’s nothing I can’t handle,” I said, meaning to end it there. But then all the frustration came out. “But how that many people survive there less than a decade after an atomic blast is beyond me.”
“Dunno,” he shrugged, “only city round here is Duluth, and a good bunch of them have moved up here. Not much left in Duluth.”
“I know,” I rolled my eyes.
“How are the highways?”
“There’s no good way into Detroit,” I sighed, “too many gangs and too much power in controlling a highway. I have no good way to access Lake Erie, and don’t have the resources to get around the city in force.”
“Still thinking you can bring back the good ol’ USA, eh?”
“I did it in Michigan! I’ve got control from the Bridge all the way down to old M-12!” I was starting to get heated again.
“’Cept Detroit,” He answered, some how expressionless and smirking at the same time, “Don’t know why you can’t just be happy with what you got, though. Lakelands are pretty damn safe with plenty of food even in the winter.”
“Because there are millions of people out there who don’t have that, Dad!” Now I really was heated. “How many fucking kids are there in Detroit and I can’t do shit about it! Maybe it’ll never happen, but if I can bring back some order to some places, I’m goddamn well going to do it!”
A few of the people in the lake house were averting their eyes. The rest were staring openly. Not many people get to witness a heated argument between the two leaders of what might be the two largest organized areas on the continent. The drama was too much to resist. I don’t blame them.
The old man actually cracked a smile.
“Come on, I want to show you something.”
I didn’t really have a choice, so I followed him. We walked in silence. Probably halfway around the lake he turned and led me through some tall grass. As he pushed the grass in his path aside, he started talking again.
“Got a present for you. Something that might help you out with your highway problem.”
When we pushed through the tall grass I saw what he was talking about. It took up a good chunk of the field we stepped into. I stared for a few seconds, and then the implications hit me. How to get halfway across the country without worrying about highways. Why had I never thought of it? My mind raced with the implications.
“Holy shit, dad,” I said, slightly dizzy, “it’s brilliant!”
“Just promise me this, son. You do what you can for those kids you mentioned.”
I finally tore my eyes away to look at my dad. His eyes were getting cloudy.
“Dad,” I said, “Thank you…”
Two days later, I stood next to Connor and looked out at the horizon. I could see the coast of Lake Michigan and the sight made my heart race. I looked down at the lake, a thousand feet below, and looked up at the multi-colored balloon. Now I could go anywhere. I could make more balloons and make communication across the whole state possible. I could find Allies!
The sun was still rising, but I stared East all the same. I was flying toward my destiny.