Vanishing Echoes

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Chapter 3

June 13, 2024

The day after the abduction, a ladder lay on the grass outside. I briefly speculated how they executed it as quickly as they had. My mind conjured up disturbing images of one person subduing or forcing Allie to the window as she pawed and clutched at her attacker, only for him to push her out the window to the ground—a jarring, survivable twenty-foot drop, only deadly or paralyzing if one were unfortunate enough to land improperly—or into the arms of another person waiting below cushion her fall. Once they removed Allie, Heather couldn’t have been any more difficult to handle than a sack of Idaho potatoes, if one were familiar with a simple firefighter’s carry.

The ladder confirmed they had targeted us, perhaps surveilling our house for days. Nauseated at my failure that may have gotten my wife and daughter killed ebbed by concentrating on slow, deep breathing. My only consolation was telling myself that nobody could think of every contingency, but the priceless cost of such an obvious error did little to assuage my guilt.

On the night the abductors took the girls, I drove through gloomy country roads, I couldn’t find any sign of the pickup. Didn’t see another vehicle. Only desolate farms, black farmhouse silhouettes, and barren fields broken only by the occasional intersection of tertiary roads that sunlight would reveal as scorched and dilapidated structures among dehydrated browning grasslands as arson became a ubiquitous weapon in this degraded society.

Cool air buffeted through the Jeep’s open windows, flapping the metal seat belt fasteners as I passed under the Interstate 71 overpass, once a bustling artery to Richmond up north and Raleigh farther south.

I glanced over at Chase, who sat with an arm bent on the window, gripping the roof.

“They’ll be fine.” I wished I could believe those words myself.

Less than an hour elapsed before our first major disappointment of the post-virus world festered inside me. With great sorrow, I made the tough decision to turn around. I strived to reassure Chase. “We’ll find them, son.”

Chase’s stolid nod was a minor comfort, as he was old enough to know that positive words did little to manifest positive consequences.

Over the next several days we ventured out full of vibrant, indefatigable hope, whispering eternal prayers, yet returned home a duo rather than a quartet. They could be a mile from our house, locked in someone’s basement or hundreds of miles away, getting further every day they were missing. Violated by daunting images of all the abuses they may have been suffering at the hands of perverse or sadistic captors twisted my innards into serpentine coils. Would we ever find the girls?

My hope dimmed, but my resolve blazed hotter and brighter than ever, a supernova patiently waiting to explode at the inevitable moment when their abductors gravitated close enough for me to vindicate them, and I would embrace my girls once more in the most heartfelt reunion imaginable.

Eventually, I needed to prioritize the possibility of never finding the girls and focusing on Chase and myself versus wasting the precious resources of gas to drive aimlessly without a destination, and the emotional toll that could weaken us, leaving us vulnerable to the unforgivable roving flocks of opportunistic vultures capitalizing on a decimated sociological infrastructure. Although we agreed to stop looking for Allie and Heather, I never abandoned the spiritual hope of setting eyes on their faces again.

I spent most nights sitting in the foyer on a folding aluminum webbing lawn chair with a shotgun perched across my lap and liquid fire in hand, the ticking ice cubes more satisfying company than my deviant musings of our projected and dreary future. Each night a different spirit haunted my glass; tonight, translucent Black Haus filled the tumbler, defeating amber specters, savoring the miserable evenings ahead when I’d summon them.

While I prayed Chase found pleasant sleep, I drank, worried, planned, and passed out.

The next day my head pounded. A sympathetic Chase respected my tortured mentality by not mentioning my inebriated tendencies and ignoring the empty bottles punted against couch legs.

Failing to make peace with my errors, every single moment contemplating my girls’ fates killed another part of me.

Under duress, I ventured outside for clean air and digestive cleansing. Under the guise of eyeing vulnerabilities where reinforcements to our security were necessary, the blinding sunlight arrested my sensitive eyes, threatening to burn holes in my soul as if I were the undead. And without half my family missing, I was. My hangover migraine subsided to a dull reminder until I bent over, wherein daggers sliced through my brain from the sudden shift in blood flow. A dark shadow advanced toward us like a Megalodon wading beneath turbid waters.

I rushed inside through the back door, summoned Chase from the bottom of the stairs while grabbing my Mossberg that leaned against the banister and the Jeep’s keys. My son’s descent was a heavy bovine stampede; his shotgun slung across his chest, his finger away from the trigger as I’d safely taught him.

Back outside, I noticed with fright that the mob was next to the old Spanish Oak halfway to the dooryard. A taut bandanna or flimsy paper mask covered each face reminiscent of nineteenth-century train robbers. Every oral inhalation dimpled their fabric masks inward like suffocating vortexes, a comical sight that nearly distracted me from our current danger.

Chase and I stood our ground. With no sign they’d spotted us, I fired a warning shot into the clouds.

In response, they paused and crouched, raising their own weapons in defense. Some failed to locate us, waving their guns around wildly.

“Disperse!” I fired again while glaring into the eyes of the closest trespasser. “Now!”

“Your food or your lives?” His partially muffled voice was gravelly, yet clear enough to understand.

“Last chance!” Another shot. “Back off!”

“Can’t do that.”

Though their desperation was clear, I didn’t want to injure or kill anyone unnecessarily; however, our limited resources were ours. The ease of my selfishness disturbed me, but my son’s survival transcended a million deaths. Lifting my shotgun, I took aim at a Spanish Oak’s branch fifteen feet off the ground. “Get back behind the house, son.”

Chase obliged, confirmed out of the corner of my eye; I crouched low and sidled against the clapboards before shooting again. Whether the bullet deflected off the tough bark or spread out over the adjacent field, I couldn’t tell.

In response, their leader returned fire, angled higher to project force rather than attempting to maim.

Both parties slunk behind cover—Chase and I behind the house, and the mob behind trees and behind bushes flanking the driveway—as clouds blocked out the sun. The Battle of the Driveway begun and as I later recalled with curious amusement, both sides dutifully respected unspoken civility allowing the other to reach cover before shooting. Clearly, neither had devolved to such primitive, desperate nadirs to salivate over spilled blood, yet we both laid passionate claims to protect and pillage what lay within our own best interests.

Gunshot blasts pockmarked the day’s serenity, matching the drab firmament. Smoking gun barrels and the acrid gunpowder incense hung low and thick. Our heads peeked out from the house’s side, and the trespassers squinted around trunks and from between branches, all of us wary to minimize our exposure to flying bullets from mostly untrained sights in either direction. Bark cracked, sprinkling natural wood chunks; bullets peppered weathered clapboards, raining splinters. Errant shots excavated grassy divots spewing dirt geysers.

“Here.” I waved the keys behind me but kept my attention focused on the interlopers. “Bring it around for me.”

Chase fired another round at the oak tree, then disappeared.

I couldn’t help wondering how comical we must’ve looked while we fired and ducked in contrast to one another’s moves like some weird see-saw gunfight.

When I heard the Jeep’s grumble, I back peddled in a crouch like a feverish crab, holding the Mossberg’s stock to my shoulder. I sent a barrage of rounds soaring over their emerging heads. They dipped low, hunkering into the shadows of verdant foliage.

Chase leaned across the driver’s seat and opened the door.

“Keep your head down.” I discharged once more for cover before tossing the shotgun onto the backseat and floored the gas. The air’s momentum shoved my door closed.

I careened the Jeep around the house, past the intruders spread out between the Spanish Oak on the left and the scrubby bushes flanking either side of the driveway, and turned right on Country Road 15. The Firestone’s jounced and kicked up dust; pebbles ticked against the undercarriage, and the suspension squealed as tormented swine. Bullets popped the fiberglass paneling, the gun reports lost to the adrenaline of the moment, and the precarious chance of escaping unharmed. Later, bullet holes cratered the side panels.

My eyes glimpsed up at the rearview, the tires crunching from dusty shoulder gravel to silent and smooth pavement.

Following a tense minute or two Chase said, “That was intense.”

I agreed and sighed. So much for the grand ole homestead.

Low grasslands and the occasional farmhouse offered potential sanctuary, yet our central nervous systems needed hazard-free recovery time to reset. Since the rule of law had now become every man for himself, I had to presume trigger-happy squatters lurked inside each house, who’d sooner die defending their bequeathed or adopted homesteads than offer shelter to refugees. I couldn’t risk Chase’s life with any more carelessness.

My top priorities were locating a haven to relax and stocking up on essential supplies of food and ammunition. The former would be more difficult to find, as I sought a place that we didn’t have to be constantly on guard for raiders storming the walls like the Bastille.

Nimbostratus clouds flaunted their robust, slate layers, surreptitious in their conspiracy to inundate our minds and dilute our recollections. Though forces may exile us from our house, the great times and family memories persisted indefinitely. Not even the specter of death could erode the indelible tattoos of Allie’s and Heather’s faces, scents, and touches from my soul.

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