People occasionally ask me about what I write about. LOTS of things!
Writing is something I've loved literally ALL my life; ...as a child writing stories and poems, ...through school as a newspaper editor, ...later obtaining completion from the Institute of Children's Literature, ...and as a beat reporter for my community newspaper.
I have some other projects "in-the-works", including a children's book that is written, but I'm still in the process of illustrating it myself. When complete, it will be available for sale.
This story was written as a submission for a book that was published as a collection of short stories all specifically regarding what life would be like if we experienced digital collapse. The book is called "Paradigm Shifts - Typewritten Tales of Digital Collapse" and is available HERE. It was the first book of a collection of published books with typewriters included as an element of the storytelling, as well as each story submitted and printed in typewritten form. (I collect typewriters and am part of a group dedicated to all things typewriters.)
I may add some other stories here as well. If you like, let me know! firstname.lastname@example.org
"Destiny In A Bottle"
By Carol Ochs
©2018 All rights reserved.
The old woman trudged along the misty shoreline, head on a swivel, clamming rake in-hand. They would not steal her clams or tool again today. This time she had a hand on her dead husband’s loaded revolver tucked deep in the pocket of her threadbare coat, ready to grab, ready to use. In her other hand, her one remaining clamming rake, a weapon itself if she got the upper hand on a threat...this time. She might look old and useless, she thought angrily, but she was hungry, and she was not about to give up a main food source without a fight. She would not become lulled into a sense of security again, either. Desperate people were everywhere. This was her beach, she’d come here every morning, especially since The Day, to gather clams.
She smiled gratefully at the thought of the dark-haired man and his friends who had come to her rescue two days ago when two ragged, hungry teenage boys she’d never seen before in the village or on the beach pushed her down to steal her bag of clams. She implored the boys, “I’ll teach you to clam and share with you.” The boys laughed, “Why share when we can take yours, you old bitch? Strong rule the weak!” Then one shoved her so hard it knocked her breath out; she fell on her back in the wet sand with a painful thud. They were wrestling the clam bag from her death grip when one pulled a knife and held it to her neck, the other grabbed her clamming rake and pushed it against her face, the cold metal tines pressed into her cheek. Out of the fog, three men suddenly ran up and jumped on the boys, pulling them off the shaking woman, tossing the boys like ragdolls. The boys gained their footing and scrambled off, shouting obscenities, and making off with the clamming rake. The men helped the old woman up, brushing sand off her back, handing her back the clam bag and asked if she was okay. “There’s no humanity anymore” the old woman lamented breathlessly, “None. Especially not for the old!” The men held her arms and back as she steadied herself and asked if they could escort her home. They claimed to be making their way home on foot to Northern California, to Big Sur. Apparently some good people still existed in this new world of survival, she marveled. Too bad these men were just passing through and not staying; the community could use more respectable men, men willing to protect the old rather than discard them.
But this morning, her eyes darted side to side, peering into the breaking dawn’s thick swirls of fog blowing across the sand, rising sharply in curls when it reached the cliffs. She hoped she was up well before anyone else living near the San Diego beach or passing through; early enough to collect her clams and disappear into the obscurity of fog, return home unnoticed, unharmed. Later in the day, the town men would be on the beach, fishing for the town’s rations. But rations were now smaller than early in the crisis as more people migrated west to the shores of California in search of food and warm weather. Those who survived the on-foot journey attempted ingratiating themselves into communities, offering expertise or skills that could benefit the greater good; doctors, nurses, ex-military. After a month, newcomers were chased away at guarded borders with the threat of being shot, numbers had grown out of control. Notices were distributed that extra rations were being given to those doing the calorie-consuming work of hunting/gathering/fishing for community rations, but it was every person for themselves beyond rations. Older folk were looked upon as drains on rations, worthless drags on the community who were expected to die soon anyway. The old woman helped care for and cooked for the sick, knitting woolens from her stash of yarn to keep neighbors warm, and typing communications the Town Council needed to send via courier to surrounding towns to alert each other to developments.
The old woman now scanned the sand beneath her bare feet for water squirts or sand erupting, indications of embedded clams. She raked quickly for shallow steamer clams burrowed two to four inches below the surface, faster to locate and tuck in the bag pinned to the inside lining of her coat, out of sight. She plodded along, head down scanning, raking the sand, then head-up scanning her surroundings, eyeing pockets of fog to run and hide in if she heard voices. Thirty four clams she counted as she collected; a decent haul. Best to leave while still unnoticed.
It was half buried at water’s edge. Pale green glass stuck out of the wet sand, the top coated with bright crimson wax. Spanish glass, she noticed. She recognized it from another time when she bottled her own bath salts and collected the bottles to display in her sunny kitchen window, filtering color like stained glass. She smiled at the memory of pretty trinkets. The swift tide rolled in, covering the bottle with foam and splashing her legs, wetting her skirt hem. She chastised herself inwardly for being caught distracted. Dangerous. But that bottle. She must retrieve it.
The wave receded and she located the bottle again, pulling it up with a heavy sucking sound. She pushed wet sand off it’s sides with cold, stiff fingers and saw behind the condensation within, a rolled up paper. Looking cautiously around, she slipped the bottle into the heavy burlap bag inside her coat and moved quickly into the fog at the cliff base to find the path home.
Safely home, the old woman headed for the small brick patio at the back of her tiny cottage, all that she could call her own anymore on the property that she and her now-dead husband owned. The main house had been taken over for use as a makeshift hospital as locals quickly began getting sick and dying after The Day, and after her husband fell over from a heart attack not long after his heart medications ran out. The cottage was several hundred feet from the main house at the edge of the cliff-side property overlooking the ocean, and had once been her art studio. Now it was her only shelter. Shrouded in vines, the cottage was barely visible to the untrained eye from the beach, or from the street at the front. She placed dried kelp and a pinch of old yarn fibers atop the still burning embers of her makeshift stove of stacked cinder blocks and a metal grate, and bent low, blowing the fire to life. Fires were kept low to avoid too much smoke, a giveaway that warmth or food was present. Placing a blackened metal teapot on the fire grate, she prepared a cup and strainer with dried herbs and seaweed for tea she would pour when the water boiled. She shucked off the damp coat and replaced it with a thick woolen shawl around her shoulders.
Basic comforts met, her attention returned to the treasure, the bottle. She drew a pocketknife from a holster strapped to her upper thigh and used it to peel the wax seal off the top. The cork crumbled and broke in half as she pulled it out; she used the blade to poke remaining fragments back into the bottle. The tightly coiled paper inside was tied with a thin piece of jute and was damp. The paper fell out the bottle mouth easily. The tie pushed off, the old woman unfurled the damp paper, put on her remaining pair of glasses with one cracked lens. She began reading the typewritten message, noting it’s date of over a year previous.
February 14, 2023
This letter is for my husband, Tyler Monroe, of Big Sur CA, USA. I don’t expect he will be the recipient of this effort to reach him via of all things, a message-in-a-bottle. But he is on the west coast, so there’s a chance though remote, that this could reach him directly, or by someone he may encounter. Tidal maps show this should float south.
Tyler left our home with two companions, on a lobster fishing trip to Puerto Nuevo, Baja California, Mexico. He left just before the EMP strike and I fear he is stranded or held there still, or possibly making his way home on foot.
If whomever receives this message has seen him or had contact with him, please pass this message onto him or be on the look-out for him. He is 6’1”, 36 years old, white American, dark-hair, green eyes, very handsome. And if this never reaches him, if life resumes normalcy and you are someday, somehow able to return-send this message to Big Sur, CA in the care of the Big Sur Post Office, 47500 Highway 1, Big Sur, CA 93920, perhaps he will have made his way home and receive this message then, whether I am still alive or not. I feel in my heart and soul that Tyler is still alive.
Puerto Nuevo is over 500 miles away from Big Sur, on the western coast of Baja, California, Mexico, below Rosarito. I know Tyler’s fishing and survival instincts and he would not likely leave the coast, a source of food.
My Dearest Tyler,
I’m crazy enough to hope this finds you some miraculous way.
Two days after you left on your trip, I discovered I was pregnant at my annual check-up. The EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse) hit the next day. We learned what happened via Dr. Young’s two-way radio channels. We get info that way that is shared around town, but no way to know with certainty what is truth or propaganda. The story is N. Korea detonated a nuke over our atmosphere to cause the EMP, then our European military bases and Allies launched an annihilating attack on N. Korea. No word on when steady food, much-needed supplies, or basic services will be restored or on the way. Rumors claim European Allies are sending ships with supplies, but with us on the west coast, who knows what countries have been affected, or when help might reach us?
You now have a beautiful baby girl. I named her Hope, with hope that you will make it back to us. On this day, Valentines Day, our anniversary, I needed to try something, anything to reach you...even if in vain. I typed this letter on your beloved old typewriter that I used to think was worthless old junk. Hope and I went down to the cliffs and I pitched the bottle as hard as I could into the tide, watched it float south. I pray it reaches you or someone whose path you cross on the coast. I love and miss you beyond words and desperately hope you feel my thoughts and presence constantly with you, drawing you home.
We’re surviving. Hope is breast-feeding and the vegetable garden and chickens are keeping me/us fed. I use your axe for firewood, your rifle in the woods. Neighbors & locals are looking out for and sharing what we can with one another. I thank God for a close community who cares for it’s own, come hell or high water. Food or game-kills are shared among all. Cammy, Liz, and Jeremy stay with me often so someone is always on guard. Cammy rode her horse to town to get Dr. Young when I went into labor and he delivered Hope here at home. It was a rough labor, 11 hours, no meds, but she is beautiful! Your dark hair and green eyes, she’s Papa’s girl through and through. Unaware of the world she was born into, she smiles all the time! She’s what keeps me focused, sane and determined to keep us healthy for your return.
Early on, non-locals infiltrated borders and tried to steal food or remaining drugs and they were shot. The Town Council instituted martial law early. Gangs of escaped criminals from jails made attempts to penetrate borders and were also shot. Security is tight. Every man or woman with a gun locally takes shifts patrolling. I’m exempt, with Hope to care for. Ex-military is a saving grace. We’re isolated which make us safer than we’ve heard other regions have been. A massive landslide after heavy rains blocked Highway 101 below us, after the bridge, you can’t pass that way. Use the other way. You know the one. The northern entrance is barricaded & guarded, Natives are protecting the back country. You have to prove residency to return. Most locals know you so it shouldn’t be a problem. But approach carefully. There’s talk of lurkers making their way into the woods, many shot on-sight.
Many older folks in town died early on and those dependent on medications. There’s also been some suicides. Dr. Young stays busy trying to keep us all healthy with what is still available, herbal medicines. Medications are non-existent including asthma meds and inhalers. He is run-ragged and has that heart condition himself. I pray he makes it through this disaster. My asthma kicks up occasionally but I’m controlling it, remaining calm as possible.
My heart and instinct tell me you are alive and coming home to us. I stand at the cliff’s edge every day and imagine you are doing the same, thinking of us as you make your way back.
Stay safe and careful. Whatever happens, know I have, and will always love you with all my heart & soul.
Elena and Hope
The old woman’s eyes filled with tears, and then she gasped, “Dark-hair, green eyes!” It had to be the same man who had helped her on the beach just two days ago! He was with two companions! Fishermen! Suddenly compelled to reach him and give him the message, she doused the fire with teapot water, rolled the message up, re-tied it tightly with the jute and replaced it in the bottle. Re-donning her damp coat, she slipped the bottle back into the clam bag pinned within, and headed out her door.
She paused a moment to think, ...Jack, the boy Jack at the edge of town...he had been kind to her, helped her gather clams. He has an old VW car that still ran. The EMP did not affect it, it had no modern electronics. Jack was able to run it off gas siphoned from modern cars instantly rendered inoperable upon the EMP strike and still sat useless at roadsides for miles. She had to find Jack. He might be able to catch up to the travelers far ahead. Hustling as fast as she could on worn-thin leather sandals, the old woman summoned newfound energy and purpose as she fearlessly headed north through her neighborhood past still sleeping houses and occupants. She weaved between streets, alternating onto the cliff-side path that overlooked the ocean, looking down periodically for signs of life or travelers on the beach. She stuck her hand in the deep pocket to assure the revolver was still there. The sun was just beginning to rise, the sky dark pink. Seagulls hovered overhead and squawked, hoping for scraps of anything. She waved her arm, shooing them away. After ten blocks, the old woman reached the edge of town and stopped to lean heavily on a low sidewalk wall to catch her breath.
Jack was in his driveway working on his car and saw her, came to her, alarmed at her hard breathing.
“I’m fine, Jack. But tell me, have you seen travelers on the beach the last day or two? There was a man and his two friends, dark-haired man, green eyes, tall...did you seem them?” she asked between labored breaths.
“I did see three guys. I think they’re still camping on the beach, trading some fish for things in town. One asked if I’d trade my car for fish, but I’m not letting her go for anything! Why?”
“Fishing, yes….thats probably them! Can you get to them? It’s very important! I have a message for one of them, for Tyler Monroe! Can you please do this, Jack? I’ll give you dinner for you and your family.”
“Well, sure. Where should I meet you?”
“At my cottage. It’s a short walk for you, a long one for me” the old woman said still breathless.
“I’ll go now” Jack said, excited at the prospect of a free meal, and went to secure his car in the garage before making his way down to the beach.
The old woman continued to rest at the wall before heading back to her cottage at a much slower pace, excited at the thought that the men might still in town, or on the beach. They had been so kind to her. Who knows what those boys might have done to her had the men not come along. If this message proved to be from the dark-haired man’s wife, she would be thrilled to be the bearer of such news…a small repayment for his kindness.
Three hours later the sun was high, warming the old woman as she pried open clams on her patio, a knock came on the door. As per routine, she quickly pulled the soup pot off the makeshift stove and hid it in the wood bin to extinguish smells of food cooking in case it was someone coming to steal food. Through the peephole she found Jack and the handsome dark-haired man.
“I found him, Tyler Monroe!” Jack said excited, as she opened the bolt in the door.
“Hello again” the man said “Are you doing OK after that scare on the beach?” he asked, genuinely concerned.
“Oh my, come in” the old woman invited. “I am doing OK, thank you, and I found something this morning. I think it may belong to you. Do you know an Elena?”
The man looked shocked. “Elena is my wife. What is this about? How do you know about Elena?” he asked worried.
The old woman reached for the pale green bottle sitting on her small table and handed it to the man. “I found this on the beach this morning”.
Confused, the man took the bottle. Seeing the paper within, he poured it out, untied it and read. Minutes passed as both the old woman and Jack watched Tyler's facial expressions as he read and then began reading out loud, turning from shock, to joy, to tears, to shock again, then smiles, and worry.
“Oh my God. Oh my God! I can’t believe you found this! She sent this? And, and you found ME! What are the chances? I have to get home! We have a baby girl! But things are dangerous there. I have to get to them! Elena’s asthma….oh God….”
The old woman and Jack felt the man’s excitement, joy, worry, fear and embraced him. A hopeful story among a sea of tragic ones in their current daily existence. An existence where one learned to expect the worst of people. Few stories that ended well anymore.
The man began to pace the tiny cottage room rubbing his head worriedly. “I’ve got to get there faster, it’s going to take me forever walking. My friends and I walked from Puerto Nuevo up to and were held at the Mexican border for months, unable to cross, they weren’t letting anyone into the US. We finally found a panga boat owner trying to come to the US who still had fuel and agreed to bring us by sea. We did so in the dead of night. We paid him in fish when we got across, enough to feed him and his family for a good long while, we taught him how to smoke it to preserve it. We’ve been traveling on foot along the coast, making our way north, camping on the beach, keeping ourselves fed with fish or trading for other things."
Jack offered “I’ve got my VW that runs. I have no idea what roads or people are like heading north, but I’d be willing and probably have enough gas to drive you as far as L.A. and then make it back home myself...if you’d be willing to trade for some fish. You guys have heavy poles for larger fish and I noticed you were smoking fish down on the beach. I could sure use some for me and my family.”
“You’ve got a deal, Jack!” Tyler grabbed Jack by the hand, then hugged him closely. “When do you want to leave?”
“I need to top-off my tank, maybe fill a spare can with siphoned gas, and how about we leave early in the morning, travel while it’s light. I don’t want to get stuck on the side of the road in the dark on the way home. We have no idea what we might encounter up north. Stories going around sound sketchy and your wife’s letter confirms that. I have a shotgun, ammo, and might be able to borrow more guns for the trip. I’ll want to bring a friend as my gunman for the way home, if we can squeeze all five of us into the VW?”
“We’ll be ready! We have a load of fish we just finished smoking last night and it’s yours. And as far as you can take us saves time walking, so thank you, for everything!” the man agreed, yet cautiously began thinking of road possibilities they may encounter and needed to prepare for.
He turned to the old woman, “I don’t know how I can thank you, and I surely will never forget you. I was scared to death what may have happened to my wife in my absence, and now a baby girl too! That letter is old now. Who knows what may have happened in the meantime.”
The old woman embraced him again, “You were so kind to me on the beach. Who knows what those boys might have done to an old lady for some clams. I have no family here or anyone to look out for me. You did. Had you not stopped, I probably would have died, or would never have met you, or put two and two together with that letter in the bottle. Good things do go around. This is proof. So thank YOU!”
The old woman asked them to stay for dinner and cooked up a pot of clam soup and added the few extra ingredients she had stowed in a cupboard; tomatoes, a few sprigs of basil from her garden, a few potatoes and carrots she’d traded for, and sent the man home with containers of soup for his friends on the beach, and for Jack and his family. The man took the pale green bottle with him as he turned to go, and the old woman dropped something into his jacket pocket, something heavy, with cold metal. “You take this on your trip home. You might need it more than me. And if you like, you can return it someday, it was my husband’s. Now go get to that family of yours!” she whispered in his ear and gave him a gentle push out the door before he could protest.
Early the next morning while it was still dark, the old woman heard a rap on her door as she was getting ready to harvest clams. It was the man, Tyler. “I wanted to thank you one more time” he said as he hugged her tightly. “This isn’t the last you’ve heard of me. Things will get better! I won’t forget you.”
The old woman smiled warmly, hugging him back. “Thank you for restoring my faith in good people, even in the worst of times. Good luck to you and your family!”
With that, the man turned and left, squeezing into the car with his friends, Jack and his buddy, who chugged away in the VW into the early fog.
Nineteen months passed. The old woman grew older yet continued down the dark path to the shore each morning to gather clams. Always wary, she lived life mostly in the shadows and fog, as obscure as possible, unnoticed meant not vulnerable. People she once thought were neighborly had shown another side she no longer trusted. She missed the security of the old revolver, but dearly hoped it had helped the man make it home safely in dangerous times. He was young and had a long life ahead with his family. She was old and nearing life’s end, whatever that end might be.
Life returned to a vague semblance of before The Day, though it would never again be the same. How did America allow itself to be so vulnerable? Government knew the potential yet let that vulnerability take a back seat, not instituting protections when they had the chance. Millions died as a result. Those aware of EMP prepared and survived best. The old woman’s town had dwindled to a fourth of it’s former population.
Ships with food and supplies eventually arrived from Europe and Australia. Martial law remained and a well-armed presence patrolled the streets. Food lines were instituted which immediately changed the disposition of everyone who no longer had to scavenge daily or prey on others for food and fresh water. The old woman shook her head thinking about how the ocean provided, which she took advantage of daily and any others who put the effort forth as well. Despite statistics, she, an old woman had survived.
Radios became the main form of obtaining news as government came back and state-by-state established order. Citizens with old technology skills were recruited to help bring back services that existed well before The Day, services not dependent on electronics. Online communication still non-existent, switchboards were. What was once abandoned technology became new again.
But no one forgot how people changed during the crisis, how in mere days or hours, so many turned on their neighbors in unspeakable ways. Human nature revealed.
The old woman recalled the kind man and the fortuitous occurrence of finding the letter in a bottle. Had he made it back home? Were his wife and child okay? She wanted and chose to believe that his kindness had been rewarded.
Then the old woman received a package, postmarked from Big Sur, CA. Mail in limited service had returned, deliveries once a week. The package looked battered, corners mashed-in, tape peeling. She carefully opened the box with her pocketknife, unwound lengths of brown paper from the object, and found it was a pale green bottle. In the bottle was a tightly bound scroll of paper with typewriting. Uncurling the paper, she sat down on her patio with her still-broken glasses to read:
We hope this bottle, “the bottle”, finds you safe, healthy and recovering from the crisis. We are excited some mail service is back so we could finally reach out to you. I memorized your address when I came to your house that last day to say good-bye.
As I’m sure you know, Jack got us as far as L.A., I trust he made it home safely. We made it the rest of the way home to Big Sur on foot, with a couple of other car rides, a boat ride in between, and a lot of hiking through the back country. We encountered a lot of tragic situations for others but we laid low and made it through. This whole thing has changed everyone forever.
But I made it back to my Elena and Hope and they are well, healthy and beautiful! You finding that bottle, then finding me was a sheer miracle, or was it destiny(?) and gave me the strength I needed to make it a very long way back through extremely trying circumstances when I didn’t know if my Elena was even still alive or not, and we’ll never forget that. You were a beacon of kindness in a time when kindness was rare.
I’m at my desk, overlooking the beautiful Pacific, typing on my old Royal 10 typewriter, the same typewriter my wife typed her letter in the bottle to me on. It feels surreal. I am also in the process of typing our story and how we survived, all of us, and I’d love if you’d be willing to collaborate with me in sharing your stories, stories only someone with valuable experience and an open heart can fully share? Someday if/when life is ever normal again, whatever the new normal will be, I’m sure there will be an audience for stories such as ours, and I happen to be a writer, professionally. What happened in America is doomed to be repeated if we don’t keep the memory alive and tell what helped us come out the other side.
You said you were alone with no family. Well Annie, we’d like to BE your family. We have a granny flat cottage on our property and it’s sitting empty, larger than the one you have there. If you like the idea, we’d love for you to come live with us. You would be by your beloved ocean, and can go down to the shore every day if you want to gather clams, and I will always escort you, or gather them for you! We hope you’ll say yes! Elena and Hope can’t wait to meet you! Let us know a date and I’ll arrange to come get you personally. I have a friend with an old VW van that runs.
Tyler, Elena and Hope
Annie, no longer feeling like just some old woman, read the letter twice, tears streaming down her cheeks. A trembling smile crossed her face as she pulled back the rug under her table, and tugged open the trap door in the floor where she hid her valuables. Out she pulled her old portable typewriter and she found a wrinkled sheet of paper to type her reply to the return address in Big Sur. She didn’t feel scared and worthless anymore. There was a story to tell, an important story of survival, and she would be part of it.