Second Dead

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Chapter 23: On the rails

“What did you see?” Dad asked when Susan and Chris rejoined us at the railroad tracks.

“Well, cars. All north bound. All the lanes and they’re packed too,” Susan said.

“Could you see the bridge?” Dad rubbed his weary eyes.

“Afraid not. We saw some more tire tracks though. Back where we came from.”

Dad thought for a moment. “Well, they aren’t bothering us. No need to fret about it unless that changes.”

“We’ll be headed right back at them,” Chris said.

“I know. Hopefully, they’ll lay low and keep out of our way.”

“Might I offer up a suggestion?” Jane asked. Covered from head to toe in army issue desert camouflage gear, she appeared much more formidable in the sunlight.

“Of course,” Dad said.

“Well, we don’t know who they are, and they don’t know who we are. Assuming they possess either a C.B. or a walkie-talkie, we can manipulate their decision-making process and make them think twice by using the radio’s to our advantage.”

Dad, never adverse to a little subterfuge to avoid difficulty, said, “Go on.”

“Simple.” Jane pointed toward each automobile in turn. Starting with the wrecker she said, “Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta. Use these call signals for each vehicle. Use lots of yes sirs, and jargon like, recon, lock and load, operations, advance observation, target and deploy. Anything you’ve seen on television, use it. If they’re armed forces, they’ll see right through it, of course. But if they’re civvies it might make them think twice.”

“I like it,” Dad said with enthusiasm.

We headed out, as Theo announced over the walkie-talkie. He led the vehicles onto the tracks. The wheels on my side of the truck ran between the rails while the tires on Theo’s side rode on the edge of the railroad ties. I could walk faster, I thought, after five minutes of drive time.

Doing less than ten miles an hour, the truck bounced every time the wheels passed over a tie. The snow obscured the tracks and at first Theo continually rubbed the tires against the rails. We began to make better progress after he orientated the truck to the rails via the incline of the berm.

I stared out my window at the freeway. Susan had been accurate. Her depiction, any words for that matter, fell far short of recounting the catastrophe. So many vehicles, so many people lost, countless stories never to be told. How many, if any, had lived to tell their tale?

“How many kids were in the station wagon?” I asked after George dozed off.

“Three. Two babies and one little guy about four,” Theo replied grimly. The boy was the only one not buckled in, had a bit taken out of his hand. The babies were bones.”

I sighed. So many horrific endings. Would we meet the same fate?

“There it is,” Theo said, an edge of excitement in his voice.

The bridge, the last known obstacle between us and a chance for a new life, came into view. Old as bridges go, it majestically spanned the Missouri river. In stark contrast to the impassable freeway bridge, from this distance, it appeared clear. The rails traveled straight toward the bridge. Another mile and we would be there.

My euphoria deflated when Theo exclaimed, “That ain’t good.”

I saw it. The bridge, although intact, did present a somewhat expected, yet serious problem. Abandoned vehicles littered the far end. We approached head on. From this angle, it proved impossible to get a precise count.

“Well, we better inform the others,” Theo said. He picked up the walkie-talkie from the cup holder.

He paused to collect his thoughts. “Papa bear, Papa bear, the chicken coop has been sighted, and the gate is closed. I repeat; chicken coop sighted, and the gate is closed. Err-- Vector tango out.”

Theo sounded like an idiot.

“I sound like an idiot!”

Well, what do you know? I smiled. We can agree about something.

“It’s Alpha. Alpha leader,” I said.

“It’s stupid.”

“Copy that, Alpha leader. Be advised there are seven chickens in the coop.” Jane’s voice crackled over the airwaves clear and concise. “Maintain radio silence. Delta leader out.”

I laughed. “That’s how you do it.”

I felt bad before the words were out of my mouth. Theo tried his best and his best was generally excellent. We all owed our lives to him. Always there, he carried out any disagreeable task required. He did it willingly, too. He just didn’t like feeling stupid. We had that in common.

“Listen, I’m sorry. All right?”

Theo glared at me. About to retort, he stopped when Dad’s voice came over the radio, “Stop at the levee… err, Vector tango.”

Yeah, I guess Dad heard it too.

Theo stopped at the levee. He ignored me and got out of the truck. Fine, be a baby. Alone in the vehicle I paused, confused. I wanted to cry. I would have too; if I wasn’t suddenly so pissed at Theo. Something had changed between us. Asshole. I clutched my rifle, threw the radio on the dash and jumped from the truck.

The wind had picked up, helped by our elevation and the lack of trees or structures to obstruct the flow. Cold too.

Everyone assembled in front of the tow truck. Susan and Klara stood on either side of the tracks. They kept lookout, yet remained close enough to hear the conversation. Dad stared down the tracks through Susan’s binoculars.

He lowered them and turned to address us. “Well, it’s unfortunate, but expected. It could have been a lot worse, when you think about it.”

Theo and Chris stopped trying to shove snow down each other’s coat and turned to Dad. In the sunlight, he looked exhausted. We all were tired, but it seemed to be taking a toll on his health.

“Listen,” he said to Theo, “we’re going to have to turn this thing around and back it down the tracks. Think you can handle that?”

“No problem.”

Once more, I marveled at how Theo could switch from idiot to deadly serious. They walked to the back of the wrecker to look over the controls. Dad pushed some buttons and pulled a few levers. It became obvious neither man had the faintest idea how to work the controls. Jane followed the two with her gaze. She stared; her eyebrows furrowed and she put her hands on her hips.

She walked over to them and said, “Let me get this straight. You commandeered this tow truck, dragged us out to this god forsaken bridge, which you say you assumed would be blocked, and yet, you have no idea how to use a boom and chain?”

“Well, I was going to look it up on the internet, but no service you know,” Theo shot back.

“We’ll figure it out,” Dad mumbled.

“Out of my way,” Jane growled, “before Vector tango here breaks something.”

“Get off his back,” I yelled. “At least he’s trying.”

Jane snarled. “Listen you--”

Dad stepped in. “Knock it off. Everyone.”

Susan glanced at Klara; they both grinned and stared at me.

Dad turned to Jane and said, “If you are familiar with this equipment, we would, of course, appreciate your help. This wrecker was a late addition. And no, we don’t have a clue how to use it. It’s been a work in progress.”

“Fine.” She went to the instrument panel and proceeded to explain the controls. “Here, this lever controls the boom,” she said while the chain connected to the rubber mats began to lower. In five minutes, she went over the proper way to hook and lift a vehicle.

Dad stared at her for a moment and then said, “Yeah. Maybe you should come with us.”

“Maybe I should,” Jane sneered.

Dad called Susan to join them. She climbed onto the bed of the truck. Theo backed down the tracks. I watched and a sense of loneliness overtook me. Apprehensive for reasons I could not explain, I took the forward watch with Anthony.

We marched toward the bridge. I kept glancing ahead to the tow truck. When we reached the steel plated side rail, we took up positions on either side of the track. Anthony faced our convoy while I kept my gaze toward the wrecker.

I leaned against the rail. We were still far from the river’s edge. Technically on the bridge, I stood less than five feet off the ground. The hill tumbled away for thirty feet before it settled into the floodplain. We were on a long causeway that led to the girder-spanned bridge proper.

Ice formed along the edge of the river. Small floes broke free and slipped downstream. Parts of the river bobbled slushy as the water coalesced in the process of freezing.

I gazed at the river while it swirled past. Something out of the corner of my eye caught my interest. I peered into the water and spotted a moaner floating along the current. I could have sworn it moved. At last, I assured myself my eyes had been mistaken.

I shook my head, about to look elsewhere when I saw it again. This time it was unmistakable. A moaner drifted past a fallen tree. Its arm shot from the water and attempted to grab hold of a branch. Failing, the current swept it away.

One long, eerie wail drifted across the water. Goose bumps prickled my arms. I shuddered in a deep gulp of air when I at last remembered to breathe. Quick and shallow, my breaths only increased the knot in my stomach.

I glanced upriver. A woman stood in the water. Clothed in a brown dress, she stared at me. An uncanny hush fell across the bridge. Fright, the like of which I’d never experienced, threatened to overwhelm me.

Finding my voice I turned and shrieked, “Anthony, come here. Quick.”

I pointed upriver. She was gone. A log with two shredded shopping bags blowing from branches all there was to see.

“What?” Anthony asked.

“I-- I-- I thought…. Oh never mind.”

Anthony didn’t even bother to look at me. He resumed his lonely vigil.

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