Chapter 21: Away
“Time, people. Let’s hit the road.” Dad broke eye contact with Jane and closed the garage door.
“What happened in there?” Theo asked after he shifted into second. We were now the lead vehicle.
“I don’t want to talk about it right now,” I replied. The sad events of the Spell’s house remained too raw to discuss.
“It’s going to be a long night,” Theo said.
The hell it was. The clock on the console read three- thirty. The night had slipped away fast. I stared at the moon.
Something clanked at the floor of the truck. I picked up my book bag and discovered the strap disappeared out the door. I pulled but it wouldn’t budge. We traveled slowly enough I decided not to make Theo stop. I opened the door and peered down. The wheel sloshed through the snow. Snow thrown up by the tire knocked my book bag strap against the bottom of the vehicle. I pulled it into the truck.
Then I heard it. A long, low, eerie wail, a howl of the like I’ve never heard before. Goose bumps prickled my arms. I slammed the door closed, sat back against the seat and a chill settled over me. Short, ragged breaths escaped my lips. My heart pounded.
I glanced at Theo. Fuck, he’d turned pale. I regained my composure and convinced myself I was being silly. Fucking ghost stories. Theo and Winford had me on edge with their stupid talk about ghosts and evil. I heard an animal: a cat, or a coyote, or, or something --
Dad’s voice crackled over the walkie-talkie, “Okay people, we know the way is clear to Kurtis’s. After the firehouse, who knows? Stay sharp.”
Up to the drug store, I thought while I tried to shake off my dread. Relieved to have something real to focus on, I decided my fright was nothing more than imagination. Yeah, less than a block and it became unexplored territory. Slow and careful, we made our way past Kurtis’s store.
We traveled downward toward the creek. I considered the possibilities. Were the streets still drivable? More important, were there people about who would attempt to hinder our passage? Of course, the big question loomed large. Was the river bridge passable? Hell, did it still stand?
“I need a drink,” Theo muttered.
“Yeah, right. Dad would kill you.”
“No. I want -- something -- to drink. Could you -- please -- give me some water?”
“Oh, right, sorry.” I reached into my bag and pulled out a bottle of water.
Theo took a long swig. The grimace on his face told me the water had been bleached. Just wonderful.
“Me too,” George said. He grabbed the bottle and drank before I could warn him.
“Sorry, it’s the only bottle we have in the truck. I forgot Dad bleached the survival bottles. When we stop I’ll get some boiled water.”
After George drank his fill, I wiped the mouth of the bottle clean. Not happy about it, I too drank from the bottle.
Theo and George laughed when I screwed up my face in disgust.
“No bodies,” I remarked, struck by the unfamiliar absence of corpses strewn on the ground.
“Yeah, I noticed,” Theo replied. “I never realized it, but all those second dead lying around your street were a dead giveaway. No pun intended.”
“What do you mean?”
“Think about it. Bodies surrounded us. Someone might have figured out there were folks around they could steal from.”
Theo was right. We never burned the dead for fear the smoke would attract attention. Now with clear stretches of ground, free of corpses, it became apparent we had advertised our presence nonetheless.
We passed the town boundary of Fishers Creek. There would be no going back now. We crossed a bridge, which carried us over the creek that had given our town its name. Up the hill we drove. Theo found the way forward difficult. Bodies and wrecked cars littered the street and we slowed to a crawl.
We came upon three police cruisers parked on the road in such a manner to be an obvious attempt to keep traffic off Brenner. Two of the vehicles had mangled front ends, which gave testament to the force used to push them out of the way. The dead cruisers stared hauntingly at us as we inched between the steel carcasses.
“Must have been one hell of a firefight,” Theo remarked while he weaved toward MacArthur.
“Yeah, I guess.” I watched the vehicles slide by. All had glass missing and bullet holes peppered their exteriors.
The hill was rather steep. Even with four-wheel drive, we slid our way upward. Close to the top, the bench seat snapped backward, giving us all a shock.
The hill leveled off and Theo turned onto the road we would take past the mall. The street made a wide arc along the hilltops overshadowing the shopping center. Soon we would end up well past the mall and next to the interstate. The railroad tracks were just beyond the overpass. Theo squirmed and fidgeted in his seat.
“Problem reaching the pedals?” I mocked.
“Yeah,” Theo replied with unexpected candor. He reached between the seat and the door. “My back pack strap is wrapped around the lever. I can’t move the seat.” He grunted in frustration while he tried to force the seat forward.
“Horse,” I said.
“What?” He stared at me like I’d lost my mind.
“There,” I yelled, my finger pointed ahead. “Horse.”
“Oh shit.” He swerved and then fought to get the truck headed straight again after the horse bolted down a driveway.
Dad’s aggravated voice cut across the radio, “What’s going on up there?”
“Nothing, Dad,” I said after I retrieved the radio from the floor. “Almost hit a horse.”
“Riiiight. Tell Theo to keep his eyes on the road.”
Theo tried to position himself better on the seat. He sat forward, away from the backrest, visibly uncomfortable.
I placed my book bag behind him. He leaned back, squirmed his shoulders and his arms relaxed.
“Feel better?” I asked while we ascended the last and steepest hill on this road.
“Yeah, lots. Thanks.” He frowned for a moment. “But you can’t tell Chris. Got that?”
“I’ll decide what I can or can’t tell my brother,” I replied with a laugh.
George gazed up at Theo. “Hey Theo, how come Dad wants to break your hands?”
“What! What are you talking about?”
“Yeah, Dad said I could ride with you guys. Said I could be your… I don’t know. But, he told me to keep an eye on your hands so he wouldn’t have to break them.”
I blushed. What did he think Theo and I-- No, just Theo, was going to do? Just what, I fumed, did my father think?
“Hooooly shit,” Theo exclaimed.
Bit of an overreaction I seethed, offended. Who does he think he is? If anyone should be insulted, well, it’s going to be me. I turned to Theo with the intent to explain some facts. I stopped. Theo stared past me and out my window. The truck slid to a stop.
I gazed out my window. Mouth open, I froze, horrified by what lay below. Ghastly in its completeness, the terrible scene came into full view under the moonlight.
Doors opened, people got out of their vehicles to get a better view. High on the hill as we were, we had a grand view of the terrain below. The hill tumbled down until it bottomed out at the drainage dike alongside the mall.
The moon shed uncanny light on the devastation below. Where a highway should have passed by the mall, it didn’t. Where the mall should have been, it wasn’t. Where there ought be buildings on the outer reaches of the parking lot, there weren’t. The only indication there once stood a thriving symbol of modern life came in the form of a single, much-mangled corner of an office tower.
“What happened?” I asked no one in particular.
“Broken arrow,” Jane said.
“What?” Chris asked.
Jane stared at Chris. She took a deep breath. “In this war -- we -- are the enemy. Control at this safe zone crumbled, so it was sanitized.”
“Shit,” Theo said.
“It was chaos,” Jane whispered. “Moaners pushed up against the barriers, moaners in the mall itself. People tried to reach the safe zone while others attempted to flee.”
“You were there,” I said.
“Yes, I served there, almost to the very end.”
“We have to go. Now,” Dad barked.