Vanishing Echoes

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Chapter 4

June 16, 2024

For several days after fleeing our home, the capricious weather stymied our search for shelter. We listened to the hypnotic tick and tap of torrential rains on the fiberglass roof, squinted from golden streams of bright ambassadors at morning when the skies cleared. By day, we drove and scavenged food in already looted markets to prevent our stomachs from going into shock. Debating the worthiness of buildings, many possessing eldritch auras or proved tenanted by vehicles spotted from our drive-by. As the indigo stain bracketed the exiled twilight, I slipped the Jeep behind unquestionably abandoned structures, always out of sight from the road so we could peacefully sleep at night with little chance of disruption. Chase stretched out on the backseat, while I reclined in the bucket seat, accepting the tight neck muscles from my cramped posture.

Setting out one morning under hoary skies, I theorized a limited house hunting day ahead. The assiduous driving without a predetermined destination, even on country roads instead of endless interstate miles where the high speeds would’ve settled me into a hypnotic daze, creeping hunger distracted me, compromising our safety by deceiving my conscious eyesight. Not realizing the sharpness of the approaching turn, taking it too fast my body leaned into the center console as the Jeep pulled to the outside, the tires kicking back shoulder rocks and gravel to cover our tracks. The great effort of lifting my foot off the accelerator to cajole the brakes twinged my leg muscles.

I glanced at Chase, one hand on the passenger handle, the muscles of his arms taut and pulsating. “Hehe. My mistake.”

Chase turned and smirked, less from my concession than from still being alive.

“Next time say something if I seem lost in thought.”


A few deer pranced along a field to the right. My mouth watered, but I’d only waste our limited ammo on prey when our desperation threatened starvation. Scurrying rodents and cute hares bounded here and there for greener pastures. White and gray birds took flight and blended in with the drab clouds pacing us. Nature remained vibrant despite humanity’s precariousness, a reminder to our insignificance that biological life would thrive after we vanished. Perhaps aided by our absence.

Often when approaching a band of pedestrians walking on the shoulder or a tribe congregating in a field, I focused and sped up. Garrulous gregariousness no longer fit inside the bubble of my innate personality out of survival, not xenophobia. One needn’t be a shrink to deduce that Allie’s and Heather’s abduction whetted my evolved perspective.

As we passed a grocery store, my eyes flicked up at the rearview. Satisfied by the empty wan sliver behind us, I reversed and pulled up to the entrance, facing to allow for a swift getaway.

“Stay here. I’m just going to check it out. If anything happens, you take off without hesitation.” I left the keys in and the Jeep running, hopping out with my Mossberg.

Thin gaps between window stiles and advertisement posters obfuscated the dismal interior. Little more than the gloomy end-caps were visible through the glass door. I tapped the shotgun’s barrel against the glass and waited for a response, but didn’t expect to receive one.

With satisfied expectations, I cracked the door with an involuntarily trembling hand that I failed to steady. I swallowed a nervous lump, said: “Hello?”

Silence invited me further inside. I glanced back at the Jeep to find Chase’s eyes tracking me, the mouth of his gun rising, peeking above the windowsill.

Fully aware of my increased respiration and heated epidermis, I entered to the jingle of a bell over the door. Reaching up and gripping it, biting a lip, and praying the tinkle didn’t announce my presence to nefarious parties, I ripped it down and tossed it over the counter when it was clear I was alone. Tink-ta-tink-trink.

I looked around the store of chest-high aisles choked with an air of isolation. The mart was on an ill-traveled road in normal times. I tore down the paper advertisements from the display window to dispel the dark-cave sensation that prickled the residual puerile fright cultivated by a youthful fascination with horror movies that resurfaced like a lakeside monster. Lingering rations that people considered and dismissed cluttered the shelves amassed with upended, opened boxes of rice and dry macaroni; flattened packaged pastries reduced to brown and white streaks; sugary plastic drink bottles lying horizontal with their contents poured onto the aged yellow linoleum tiles below, creating a tacky suction from coagulation that produced harsh tears with every step. Even sealed food containers and cans appeared dubious. But desperation overruled any hesitance of their edibility, deciding me to benefit from what others rejected out of necessity for ensuring sustenance.

A crinkling potato chip bag throbbed, dancing the length of a browning shelf in fits and starts. It bonked the end of the shelf, pausing its hidden cardiac activity as I stepped around an end-cap of beef jerky and other cured meats. My heart stalled; curiosity extended an open hand to brush the package onto the floor and returned to the Mossberg’s stock to prepare for action. The phantom within the shiny green and white paper let out a squeak of surprised irritation at the impact. Salty crumbs skittered out the open mouth before a twitching whisker emerged, leading a delicate pink triangle, and the deep gray rat from its plastic cocoon. I made a shooing noise that startled the rodent to the end of the baseboard where it turned out of sight.

My circulatory system resumed its operations. I lowered the shotgun with an uncomfortable laugh. A measure of humiliation tingled my masculinity, quickly placated by my solitude. More poignant was how different, fragile my nerves had become from the short-lived experience up to that point in Horton’s Grocery.

Time-pressed against my sensibilities, and I set to work clutching a handful of plastic shopping bags. Before packing food to my heart’s content, I marched the perimeter of the mart, eyeing the length of each of the five aisles, making sure nobody huddled to attack me. I ignored an intriguing mound beneath a window beside a frozen cooler of ice cream cartons and bars at the end of the third aisle. Satisfied that I was alone, I gathered sundry cans of fruits and vegetables, tuna, chicken, peanut butter and jelly, bread, twenty-four-pack cases of water found their way into myriad bags. Normally considerate and disciplined enough to lasso my rapacious tendencies, I no longer cared about leaving anything for others as our crisis erased all societal expectations for consideration. We were all in survival mode at that point, but even then, the needle of my moral compass floundered around shame and regret.

A handful of bagged supplies banged against my leg out the door. Meeting Chase’s eyes and nodding toward the rear, I asked him to pop the tailgate and help me with cases of water.

The tailgate release cracked through the day’s serenity. I placed the bags in the cargo hold and glanced along the road in both directions, seeing space along the ashen scar that split the faded green fields of grass before making a second trip inside.

We packed six cases of water into the cargo hold. Chase returned to the shotgun seat to resume sentry duty with my instructions to honk if anyone approached, either on foot or wheel.

I checked the store for other products that we could use. Cleaning and automotive products occupied the last and only aisle of inedible items. The shelf resembled a barren desert of sagebrush and sand. I chose quarts of oil, transmission and brake fluids, a plastic funnel, a couple of paper towel rolls, a pair of flashlights, and packs of batteries, surprised there were any left.

More concerned with juggling three packed bags than where my foot stepped, it kicked a cigarette pack in front of the counter that spun across the floor, rebounded off the door, and settled against the bottom of a magazine rack. I set the bags down on the counter and picked up the cigarette pack. Studying it as if it were the Rosetta Stone and disturbed by its suspicious presence more than at my oversight for passing by without stepping on it before then, I tossed it away. I brief at the scarce remains on the rack with none piquing my interest; I slipped my fingers through the plastic handles when a clatter from the back drew my attention. Disregarding the bags with heightened awareness, I chided myself for the carelessness of leaving the shotgun out in the Jeep. However, with the mart vacant, and saw no need for hefting it during this final walk-through.

Reasoning out the high probability that the source of that noise was the rat who’d sojourned inside the bag investigating a curiosity from its nose, I crept along the nearest aisle hunched below the top runner with my heart engaging in an imminent fight by pumping blood that thumped in my ears and muffled all sounds. I dragged my feet to stifle my footsteps on the soiled floor as much as I could.

I took a deep breath at the end-cap and worked up the courage to peer around it as thoughts of my head blasting apart with all the ease of a ripe melon procrastinated my action. Nobody hunkered, nor did I see anything lying on the tiles. Only an ATM and a wire rack full of knit caps, Virginia and Maryland road atlases, and other useless knickknacks that drove children wild by simply possessing them, and the long, frozen cooler at a back window. Driven by nosy desire, I rotated an arm, relishing in the normal, muted squeal, and discovered a cowering little girl in the corner by the frozen cooler. No older than three, her watery, blue eyes feared me. Glistening trails shined on her ruddy cheeks, saliva slicked her lips, and a golden mucous bubble pulsated with each nasal exhalation.

My heart and voice softened, “Hi, sweetie. What’s your name?”


“Hi, Mictoria.” I smirked at her obvious mispronunciation of Victoria. “I’m Gus. Where’s your Mommy and Daddy?”

Victoria shrugged, her blonde ponytail whipped pendulously, lightly smacking each cheek where a strand or two stuck.

“Did they leave you here?”

Without a response, Victoria only stared at me.

The Jeep’s horn chirped like a frantic, starving hatchling.

My trepidation peaked and my attention shifted to the display window, expecting an army convoy of Hummers or troop transports full of militiamen with M16s, but saw nothing except light blue sky, as the overcast skies must’ve cleared. I turned back to Victoria, my hand caught absently on a Virginia road atlas that I pocketed for no other reason than its availability and not conscious of its potential navigational benefits in this world sans GPS. On impulse, but not wanting to scare her any more than she already was, I gently scooped her up, and felt her nose buried into my shoulder. That made me think of Heather as I rushed outside, ignoring the bags.

Seeing me carrying the baby, Chase deferred his confusion and snaked his arm backward to push the rear passenger door open. I set the Mossberg on the floor of the cargo hold and strapped the little girl in, slinging the shoulder harness behind her body so it wouldn’t choke her. My head creaked on taut, fleshy ball bearings as I closed the tailgate. On my way around to the driver’s seat, I saw the two dark vehicles approaching from the south.

I pulled away from the mart, realizing I’d forgotten the last of the bags on the floor? The counter? Oh well, didn’t matter.

I headed towards the trucks in the opposite direction, on the same course, before stopping at the market. Not fond of inviting a pursuit, I drove at a moderate pace so as not to inspire the natural law to predators that flight signaled prey. I realized people may have evolved beyond such rudimentary thinking before all this, however, the dire situation reshuffled the deck of basic instincts.

I drove at a moderate, unhurried pace, trying to secure my seat belt. Victoria wore a vibrant smile in the rearview. Blindly, yet distractedly, I clacked the metal clasp around; Chase helped slip it in. I’ve never heard a more satisfying click.

As we neared the lead pickup truck, its chrome grille loomed like an evil grin to my pessimistic judgment of their intent. I avoided making eye contact with the driver, and the two men with baseball caps and porno mustaches on their upper lips perched above the cab. I was about to tell Chase to look straight ahead, as eyeballing conveyed a challenge to most predators in the animal kingdom as well, but soon the whoosh from our passage made verbalizing that thought as moot as yesterday’s winning lottery numbers.

Almost immediately, brakes squealed and tires chirped. Smoked breathed in the side-view mirror as the trucks stopped and reversed course to pursue us. Their predatory instincts must’ve tingled, dictating their reactions from correctly presuming that we’d stocked up on whatever precious goods Horton’s offered, leaving nothing for them, and inviting a raid.

I floored the accelerator. This is getting ugly, real fast.

My eyes checked the rearview every few seconds. White gold starbursts reflected the blazing midday sun off the pickup’s chrome grille, jabbing my retinas.

Baby Victoria giggled with delight, waving her arms with enthusiasm as the truck vacillated along the sinuous road. A bend temporarily hid the pursuant vehicles from sight, and though my mind fully predicted their reappearance seconds later, I breathed easier in those microscopic moments when they had vanished. My cardiac thoroughbred resumed its furious gallop with every reemergence of the black pickup and green SUV.

Haven Hill Road had many lengthy driveways and unpaved dirt or gravel spokes that fed into abandoned tobacco fields or plantations where only private citizens lived. The Jeep’s dusty wake would betray us if I turned into one such lane. There were even fewer intersections, but the few all cut deviated along a straight, visible course. Our only hope was if we happened upon a hidden logging road hidden by overgrown shrubbery. I had little faith in that option.

The speedometer needle rattled towards a hundred and twenty. The steering wheel shuddered in my tenacious grip, the vibrations jolting my median nerve. I reconsidered pulling over and freely relinquishing our spoils, hoping would be all, but I didn’t sense our pursuers held any value in life and were equally fine with nestling bullets in our brains and dumping our bodies on the shoulder. I refused to gamble the high stakes of the kids’ lives on those meager odds.

Through my bleary, vibrating rearview I noticed the distance between us and them remained constant.

A gap in the roadside foliage opened in the curve to the right, revealing a gravel road, but we coasted by too fast, where slamming the brakes and cutting the wheel was more dangerous than seeking an alternate route. Another glance in the mirror confirmed our pursuers were too close, anyway.

Imagining how enraged our stalkers were by our flight, an idea surfaced through my turbid consciousness, as dangerous as it was desperate. I weighed the results of our survival chances when they cornered us, raided our goods, and probably executing us against the worst outcome if my scenario failed. Although each amounted to the same horror, the former resisted more and would make their achievement harder to obtain, making my decision easy.

I told Chase my plan with full confidence in his ability to succeed. I knew that a shootout with these Neanderthals was inevitable, with only the location indeterminate.

Chase unclasped his seat belt and twisted onto his knees with the Mossberg’s barrel gripped tight in one hand. I opened the sunroof.

“Vicky, sweetie? I need you to put your hands over your ears and close your eyes real tight for me. Can you do that, honey? If you hear any loud noises, it’s just car farting.”

The sweetness of her giggling and cute head bobbed in the rearview, shattering my hard determination. Her reflection complied with her chubby paws rising and pressing against delicate ears.

Chase settled a foot on either seat and rose through the sunroof on tremulous legs as the Jeep sped along the road where every shallow divot felt as deep as a chasm.

The first roar startled me. A succession of blasts shook the wheel in my sweaty grasp as the two figures in the pickup’s bed fired back. My mind reeled with the image of me losing control, the top-heavy Jeep staggering like a drunkard, and rolling off the road onto the grass, consumed in flames as the truck’s return fire punctured our gas tank.

Chase’s rounds sailed wide or high from my view through my side and rearview mirrors as neither any sparks dinged off the grille nor any glass shattered. The black truck swerved from either shoulder to minimize themselves as a target and adding difficulty to Chase’s task.

Pavement chips fragmented all around the Jeep, clicking against the undercarriage and popping off the fender panels.

More shots rang out, spitting up tufts of earth and rocky concrete, but still missing the swerving truck, whose sentries gripped the cab’s roof lights in desperation. I realized the shots were costing us precious ammunition, and though it was imperative that we shake them for survival, this plan wasn’t succeeding.

“That’s enough, Chase.” I tugged on his jeans.

He remained standing through the sunroof, either legitimately not hearing me, or intentionally disobeying me as I’d expect from any normal teen stubbornly focused on achieving their goal.

Seeing an open road ahead, I shifted my eyes to the rearview for longer stretches, pleading one of Chase’s rounds struck the pickup. Rapid shots popped above me one second and manifested into showers of glittering sparks off the zigzagging chrome grille the next. An auspicious shot must’ve penetrated the hood, destroying the release mechanism as it flapped back, obscuring the driver’s view through the windshield. I suppose the nearly three-figure speeds helped funneled the rush of air that normally surfing over the hood, windshield, and cab but caught underneath the lifted hood. Whatever the explanation, we benefited as the truck veered left, then careened right, its tires squealing and spitting up shoulder pebbles, the panicked men in the bed twisting their mouths with frightening speculation, before it jostled rough down the embankment, and came to a stuttering halt amongst the browning grass.

I sighed as they weren’t a threat anymore, but I expected them to flip and explode in a ball of flames. Too much Hollywood influence influenced me. My eyes peered up and saw the forest green Escalade’s front-end glaring at me through the void left by the ebony pickup.

“Keep firing, son,” I cheered with all the excitement of a GameDay alumnus.

Whip cracks sliced through the day, perhaps causing more than a few avian heart attacks, pacifying my anxiety. This assault was our best chance to escape from these road warriors; the stalled black pickup in the grass dwindled with every mile.

“Shoot their tires!” I yelled to Chase with a child’s delight.

He fired again and again. At one point I thought I heard his ululating voice, but couldn’t understand what he said.

I tugged on Chase’s pant leg and this time he crouched, regarding me with malleable eyes.


“I’m out.” His labored breathing had a slight, detectable wheeze.

“It’s alright. Reload, but stay down here for now.”

Our speed reduced below eighty with the road’s tortuous contours; our shadow paced us the entire way. A flicker of concern for the engine’s hydration forced a glance to the fuel gauge, but the needle leaned satisfactorily left of center.

I turned right at Farmer Lane, not planning to attempt any stuntman maneuvers to lose the Escalade.

An incoherent thought assaulted me from the fear of Chase’s and Victoria’s deaths: since the country had devolved into madness, with military forces haunting urban streets, raging militias of defiant citizen battling and overwhelming local police into obscurity, provoking anarchy, requiring every family to rely on their own defenses as wary Constitutional prognosticators had foreseen. With only a few boxes of ammo remaining in our supply, resources became scarcer daily. How long before society returned to bows and arrows, clubs and spears once again?

I abhorred the inevitability of what we needed to do next.

“Chase, load the shotguns.”

Chase climbed into the back between the bucket seats. The sight amused Vicky as she issued the sweetest laughter; her shining eyes dancing with glee. He ruffled her hair and settled behind me.

I heard clicks and clacks as Chase loaded the shotguns.

“Chase, stay back there but put the 500 on the passenger seat. When I stop, get out, and give them hell. Just make sure you take out their front tires. That way, they can’t steer worth a damn if we have to jet. Then fire at anything that moves and don’t stop until you’re clicking.”

I eased my foot off the gas; the Escalade’s grille loomed ominously in my side-view mirror. When I eased down on the brake, adding incremental pressure, my biggest fear came true—in seconds the Escalade closed the gap, smashing our bumper, and rocketing us forward.

“Brace yourself. I’m slamming the brakes.” If I can gain some distance to minimize their chances of repeating their destruction derby tactics . . .

I sped up brusquely to widen the distance between us without allowing the driver to anticipate my next move. I unlocked the doors to save every second. Estimating the length separating the Jeep and Escalade to about half a soccer field, I jammed the brake pedal, pulled the wheel hard to the right while yanking up the handbrake lever. The Jeep thrust forward, my belt slicing a red mark against my chest; Chase grunted as his body thudded my seat. A dark, malodorous burnt-rubber odor wafted out of the bowels of metallic gray smoke plumes that breathed toward the horizon ahead of us. The gentle angle offered the driver side further shelter from incoming return fire.

We both opened our doors, Chase hopping out first and crouching down on one knee, firing two rounds before I’d even gripped my shotgun Mossberg off the seat. I settled on the shotgun on the hood, aiming at the windshield, repeatedly firing until spider tendrils branched out in all directions from splashing slugs penetrating the tempered glass. The shadowy interior made it impossible to tell where my shots landed.

The Escalade’s front end soon collapsed from Chase’s shots that punctured both front tires. The front passenger door creaked, and a man's head and a gun barrel leaned out. I trained my sights on the head and fired. The head slumped back out of sight, and the barrel dropped to the pavement. Two more cries erupted with different pitches as we continued firing. Fiberglass dimples popped hollowly from errant bullets. A bleeding body crumpled to the pavement outside the passenger side. The irate eight-cylinder engine revved monstrously, rocketing towards the Jeep with the mesmerizing wonder of a shooting star.

“In the Jeep!” I dropped my shotgun on the pavement, my heart seizing from the projection of the Escalade’s trajectory, and the forecast of the imminent damage.

I thought of the helpless baby in the back as I hurdled into the driver’s seat and floored the gas before even registering that Chase had settled beside me. Unfortunately, I forgot I’d applied the emergency brake. The engine protested like an unruly elder, our tires screamed obscenities, and we didn’t get further than a few inches as if we tugged a cruise ship behind us.

I steered to the right, hoping we could avoid than oncoming SUV when a greenish blur flashed by the periphery of my eye. The Escalade rocked down the gently uneven slope onto the grass, sparing the Jeep.

I noticed motion in the back. Reacting without thought, I leaped out, retrieved my shotgun from the pavement five yards behind us, and emptied the three remaining shots into the SUV.

Without confirming the impact of my shots, I handed Chase the gun, disengaged the E-brake, and sped into the scintillating afternoon sunlight. Out of recent habit, my attention flicked up at the rearview, but only space trailed behind us.

“That was awesome!” Chase said with an enthusiasm reserved for the youthful.

“No, it wasn’t. It was reckless and dangerous.”

“But Dad . . . we beat them.”

I let that comment slide to concentrate on the road. My reticence was less about chiding my son’s callousness regarding people dying, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel equally thrilled by our successful getaway. Relieved that it hadn’t unfolded differently as well.

As I drove through softening afternoon light, a guilty apprehension prickled inside me for subjecting the kids to the danger that responsible guardians should never chance. I strived to appease that disquieting feeling with the argument that the worst didn’t happen, but my obstinate, autonomic nervous system maintained its poignant response as if our bodies littered the grass shoulder of Farmer Lane.

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