August 2

1790 — First US Census taken — population 3,929,326

 

Gordon Middlesworth had always assumed that if the world ever ended, a revised version of the US Census would essentially consist of one person endlessly shouting the same plaintive phrases into a radio transmitter:  Are you there?  Is there anybody there?

But the apocalypse wasn’t total annihilation.  It was more like the drastic downsizing of a business:  with the reduced population remaining, you actually needed more oversight to keep things running smoothly.  The Census became more important than ever.

Trouble was, people didn’t want to be counted.

Maybe they never did.

The revised version of the US Census was actually more like the old days.  In 1790, when the survey first started, they didn’t have scanning machines to convert written data into code, with computers to sort and categorize and extrapolate missing data.  The Census workers essentially went door to door, gathering information personally from each household.

And that’s what Gordon was doing now.

“Ma’am, I need to ask you a few questions.”  As he shouted over the fence to the woman kneeling over a small vegetable garden in her front yard, Gordon casually moved his open jacket aside to reveal the Census badge above his shirt pocket…and the shoulder strap and gun holster.

“Got nothing to say to you.”  The woman barely looked up from the patch of earth she tended, but her hand gripped tight to the trowel she’d been digging with.  She held the tool’s handle as if she wished it were a pistol.

Gordon forced his way through the gate, keeping his eye on the porch and the front door behind the woman.  He wondered if she’d spoken loud on purpose, to alert any others in the house.  Someone might have an actual gun, come running out at her next sign of distress.  “It’s just questions,” he assured her.  “Official business.  It helps everybody if you participate.  The better our information, the better we can devise programs that make things work.”

“Please.”  The woman finally looked up as she spoke.  “Just leave us alone.”

Gordon caught her accidental admission.  “Us?”

The woman’s face flushed.  She looked side to side in panic, then stood and spread her arms wide as if hoping to block his access to the house.

Her face was smudged with dirt, but a few clear trails ran down from beneath her eyes.  She’d been crying.

“All I need is the number.”  Gordon lifted his notepad, to show where he recorded the responses.  “It’s you, and how many others?”

“We told the one who came before you,” the woman said.

“Before…?”  Gordon stopped, looked up and down the mostly empty street as if expecting to find the person she referred to.  “I’m the only authorized Census taker in this region.  You must be mistaken.”

“Last week.  He didn’t flash a badge, but he had a gun good as yours.”  Fresh tears ran down her face now, as her voice rose in anguish.  “I told him there was four of us.  Now there’s three.  He took my youngest.”

Oh God.  No wonder the citizens had been so hesitant to talk to him.  “I assure you, I’m no threat,”  Gordon said.  “I’m only gathering information.”

In his compassion for the woman, he’d stopped watching the house.  The door flew open, and a teenage boy leapt off the porch, a kitchen knife raised high.

The woman’s cries had warned him, mentioned the gun so the kid would be on alert.  Gordon reached for his holster, but the closed strap held the pistol firm in place.

The kid tackled him to the ground, and the serrated blade came cold and swift to his throat.