Engine Company 513
At first, all I know is the cold unyielding press of the revolver barrel against my hip. It makes me feel like I’m sticking myself up. I do my best to ignore the feeling, slide off my bike, and stare this newcomer down.
Josiah and I keep close enough to the side of this two-lane Farm-to-Market road, even though Thunder is still barking like crazy at the man, Reginald Alteo. Thunder’s barks send up a murmuration of birds, which scatter from the tree line that flanks the Old Alton running trails. Reg doesn’t move. His figure is washed out by shadows. Tree branches are meshed together above him.
“Easy, boy,” he says at last, staring Thunder down.
There’s a thin streak of black on the concrete at my feet. A trace of residual shock from when Josiah had braked hard and skid on his back wheel. The worn notes of pine and hay that were playing around my nose all evaporate, now that it’s no longer just the three of us.
I gulp down air that’s swollen and earthen before shaking my head. Holy shit. Another living person.
“We’re armed,” I blurt, my voice carrying across what feels like acres of farmland. “Just a heads up.”
Less than six months ago, I took my first ever concealed handgun class on campus. The training was top notch, and one of the first things the instructor taught us was when to announce that you were carrying. Short answer: always.
The weight of my announcement shows now as Reg, a lean guy who looks like he’s in his late thirties, stiffens. His eyes dart to Josiah, then back to me, the birds now disappearing over the woods around Hickory Creek. The gravel driveway behind Reg is dark, the bushes on either side laced together like bony fingers. He stands tall next to a lopsided brick mailbox, one that looks like it stood its ground against an oncoming truck and lost.
“Good, thanks for letting me know.” Reg opens his jacket so that I can see the holster at his side. A pistol. “I want to be transparent with you guys, too.”
“Thunder, c’mere, boy,” I say, snapping my fingers. Thunder makes one last lunge at Reg before spinning around and trotting back to me. I rub the top of his head but keep my eyes on Reg the whole time. Though there’s a few feet of space between us and him, my gut is telling me not to get any closer. The line where concrete meets gravel is clear as day.
“Hey there, I’m Josiah.” My friend puts caution and friendliness into each word. He backs up so he and I are standing side by side with our bikes parallel. “Maybe we can help each other,” he adds, never breaking eye contact with Reg.
I nearly roll my eyes before glancing at my friend’s curly head, wondering what the hell’s going on inside it. Josiah keeps his gaze level. His impression of confidence, I guess. Reg purses his lips and cracks a smile. Even when we’re a split second away from a standoff, here Josiah is, still relying on chipper introductions to try and defuse the situation.
Reg’s smile melts as his eyes darken. “You two didn’t see the signs back down there by Goatman’s Bridge?” He uncurls his fist and points to the sharp downhill slope leading back toward Denton. “We put them there for a reason.”
Before I can ask Reg what reason he had for building a car barricade, Josiah speaks up.
“We did. But Rayland and I decided to take a chance and keep going. I live about another mile south of here. I’m looking for my family.” Josiah lowers his head and half slumps over his handlebars. “I haven’t heard from them since this all went down. I don’t know if they’re...”
Reg’s face softens. He shakes his head and looks right at the sprawling city skyline to the north. “It’s a tragedy, this whole end of days,” he mutters. “Some people can’t accept how bad things really are.” He rests his hand on his holster and nods to Josiah. “What’s your last name?”
“Knect,” Josiah replies, blinking a couple of times. Reg grunts and stares down at a point on the cracked road, eyes searching. Josiah glances my way. I shake my head ever so slightly. My hand hovers next to the side pocket of my bike bag where my revolver is stashed.
Even if Reg wasn’t playing things cool, there’s still something off about him. Maybe it’s the gray of his eyes, or the fact that he doesn’t have any bags beneath them. His jacket fits snug on his body, too. He’s well fed, so he must have supplies. And he said “We,” so there are others with him.
A single bead of sweat runs down my temple. Him being out here makes no sense. Especially if Reg is part of a group. But somehow I doubt his group includes the two officers I talked to last night.
“Knect. Josiah Knect,” Reg says, his words smoother than yarn being unstrung. His face brightens before he reaches for the walkie-talkie clipped to his belt. My trigger finger twitches. “You’re in luck, Josiah. My group is with your family. They live in the Canyon Oaks subdivision, right?”
Josiah starts forward with a jerk of his arms. “You found them?! Are they okay?”
Reg holds his hands up. “Last I heard from my group, yes.”
A sigh of relief snuffs itself out in my throat. I swallow and, lowering my hand from my bag, roll a little closer to Reg. “Why aren’t you with your people?” I ask.
Reg leans against what remains of the mailbox. He squeezes his nostrils between his thumb and index finger, then speaks. “I had to keep close to the fire station.” He dips his chin so that his eyes hone in on only me. “My crew and I have been holding out there for the past two weeks. I do my best to make sure we always have eyes on it while the others are out scavenging. There are some bad people out there. Bandits.”
Is he talking about Officer Owens and Richards? Or other survivors Josiah and I haven’t crossed paths with yet? I do my best to rein in my surprised look, but it doesn’t matter. Reg is staring back at the horizon over Denton. He unclips his walkie and presses the PTT button. “Evan. What’s the name of that family that you all are with?”
Both Josiah and I lean in. Thunder lets out another low yap and slinks behind my bike. A breeze stirs what remains of a barbed wire fence and the overgrown grass flooding the ditch that’s just a few feet away.
The voice that comes through is light and unsteady for a guy. “They’re the Knects,” the man tells Reg over the line, “Michael and Lisa Knect. And their son and daughter.”
Something in me sprouts wings and soars for the ash gray sky. “Oh, thank you God,” Josiah cries. He throws his leg back over his bike before looking to Reg. “Tell them Rayland and I can be there in twenty minutes. Please.”
Though I want to tell Josiah not to share much more with this guy, Reg slowly spins around and starts walking back up the driveway like we’ve faded out of his awareness. He lowers his voice, telling the guy on the other end of the line something I can barely make out: “...Evan, how’s Kyler doing?”
Evan’s response evades my ears, but it shows in the way Reg’s shoulders relax. He nods and lets out a gentle click of his tongue. “Good. Sounds like Bob is finally starting to level out. Keep an eye on him. We don’t need more people running scared…”
Not two seconds later, Reg about-faces back to us, his expression soft and easygoing. “Good. Alright, Evan,” he says with a slight chipper spike in his voice. “When you all are done, I’ll be waiting back at the fire station. Josiah and his friend should be getting to the house here in a few minutes.”
“Copy that, Reg,” comes Evan’s reply. Reg switches his walkie-talkie off and saunters back over to the main road. There are wheels turning behind his eyes. “Your family’s fine. Looks like you have a lot to be thankful for.” Reg’s words are hard and almost pointed, like Josiah’s family being alive is more a matter of luck than willpower. I prop my foot on my pedal and let my eyes fall to the ground.
“What about you?” Reg clips his walkie back onto his belt. “Got any family around, Rayland?”
With a slow and pained shake of my head, I say, “I think my mom and sister are still holding out in Waco –”
“Waco, Texas,” Reg says, his voice thoughtful even as he cuts me off. He tips his head to where Copper Canyon meets East Hickory Road just around the short bend ahead of us. “My group and I will probably head down that way before long. We heard that the Army is holding out at Fort Brackner.” He lowers his head. “If I can get my people to safety, get them prepared for anything, then it doesn’t matter what happens to me.”
Josiah stares down the road and bites his lip. Reg throws up his hand and drives the toe box of his boot into the gravel. “You all should get going,” he says, “I don’t mean to keep you from your family, Josiah.” He tips his head at me. “Or you, Rayland.”
“Thanks,” I say, trying to get rid of the cotton that’s lining my throat. I leash Thunder for the third time today and kick off. Josiah does the same, his breath coming fast now as our wheels begin to whistle against the wind.
We ride. The cold in my bones swirls and grips me, even after I start pedaling harder to get the hell away from Reg. His lack of goodbye is what sticks with me like a lingering cough.
The question that claws at my mind is a simple one, but one still heavy with doubt: Who can we trust, Reg and his group, or those two cops?
Pedal stroke after pedal stroke, we race closer to Engine Company 513.
“He was there on watch,” I call to Josiah over the roar of the wind, which has now picked up. He nods and looks over at me, murky fear lapping at his eyes.
“Question is, why,” he says after sitting back on his seat and adjusting his gloves. “You think he was trying to find the police officers? They could be…” Josiah cuts himself off and shakes his head. I imagine he won’t stop worrying about his family until he can see and hug them himself.
“That’s why I didn’t bring them up,” I respond. “It didn’t feel right.”
“Not much about Reg did,” Josiah admits.
I clench my handlebars tighter and narrowly miss a truck that’s sticking halfway into the road. Now I can be mad. Josiah told Reg too much about himself and his family when he doesn’t even know the guy. It’s openness like that we can’t afford to show.
I speak up once we reach the T-intersection and roll to a stop. “We need to be careful, man,” I tell Josiah, Thunder standing and shooting nervous glances down the road. “I mean, hell, Reg is a stranger. His group may not even be with your parents, for all we know.”
Josiah’s throat goes taut. When he turns his almond-shaped eyes on me, all I can pick up is a sense of quiet embarrassment. “I know,” he murmurs. “I just…had to take a chance.”
We soar down Copper Canyon Road, the streets newly paved and offering us a much smoother ride than what we had dealt with last night during our semi-truck raid. Two cars juts out of the ditch to our right. Weeds and grass have started to claim the wheels, tightening their slow but persistent death grip on the rusting rims. How many bodies have we missed in the overgrown fields and culverts? What are the odds that, somewhere out there on the Old Alton trails, there’s even just one person who somehow made it? Who pitched a tent and learned how to live off of plants and wildlife?
Josiah glances sideways to make sure I’m still with him, then takes the lead on his bike. Sweat rolls down my back and pools around the waistband of my boxer brief. Thunder has started to pant pretty heavily. We can’t ride much faster, since Thunder can only carry a full-on sprint for a couple of minutes at a time. Even so, Josiah’s hurry isn’t lost on me.
After another mile, there’s a break in the tree line, and the tan fire station appears ahead on our right. STATION 513. Clear as day in faded white letters that are stuck to the side of the building, which is positioned in the center of a grassy field not far off the main road.
“Oh my God,” I mutter, looking at all the cars jammed nose to nose ahead. One fire truck juts halfway out into the road, blocked off from the garage bay by six or seven cars that are crammed together in the front driveway.
“I recognize these cars,” Josiah says, shaking his head before he dismounts onto the sidewalk. His jaw tenses. “Some of my neighbors must have come here when this all first happened.”
“Maybe some of them survived,” I reply, squinting against the harsh glare of the sun. I go for the revolver in my bag. “There have to be more people. Like Lieutenant Owens.”
Both of us walk our bikes across the patchy grass. The pylons next to the building stretch out like giant metal skeletons, no shimmering waves of heat rising from their currentless cables. Josiah looks back and asks, “Think anyone’s inside?”
“We can check,” I say, glancing at my watch and shrugging. “But I know you want to hurry home.”
“Come on,” Josiah says. “Just a quick look.”
I shake my head at his change of heart, then pause and study the relatively clean brick front of the fire station. But then again, maybe Josiah is finally learning how to not rush headlong into unfamiliar territory. Could be he wants to avoid being ambushed just as much as I do.
We take our time, navigating our bikes around the cars before we place them against the side of the building. Once I’ve tied Thunder to a light post, I rejoin Josiah, who’s already walking up to the front office. There’s a side door, and Josiah finds the message scrawled on a piece of paper that’s taped up.
SCOUTING CONVOY OUT EVERY DAY FROM 10:30 TO 2:30. - Reg Alteo
I try the door, but it’s locked. Josiah waves me on to follow him round back.
“Hello?” Josiah holds up his hands and steps around the next corner. “Anybody here? We’re two survivors. We talked with Reg.”
“Nobody. ” I say once precious seconds have ticked by. Thunder whimpers and huffs, but stays seated on the concrete path trailing away from the door. I look back at the note again. “They must be looking for other survivors.”
Josiah takes a deep breath and runs his index finger along a cement line holding together two levels of bricks in the wall. “Reg’s group may have a good defense plan,” he says. “They could help us.”
“I’d rather not ask for help from everyone we meet,” I mutter. “People look to take advantage of that kind of weakness.” My inner voice chimes in with a snarling follow-up: If Reg is searching for other people, then he should be doing it with whoever else he was with before.
Dark swirls of doubt gather and collide in my stomach. That’s all assuming Reg is telling the truth in the first place.
We circle the whole building, looking for any other signs of life. All three of the bay doors are shut on the back side. I peer in through the first garage door and breathe a huge sigh of relief. A red and black vehicle on the other side comes into focus, as does the blue sacred cross symbol on the side. “There’s an ambulance!”
“Looks like they turned the garage into a medical area,” Josiah muses, peering in and whistling. Sure enough, there are six cots lined up inside to the left of the ambulance. Josiah presses his fist into his palm and adds, “This could be our lucky break.”
Then we round the third corner. My chest fissures and shakes my heart. There are bullet holes that have pockmarked the south side brick wall of Engine Company 513. Spent bullet casings stick out of the dead grass, their golden glint barely visible at first.
“Jesus.” I bring my revolver to low ready and spin around, facing only dormant trees and a spare brick building on the far corner of the back parking lot.
Josiah studies the pattern of spray marks, his mouth slightly agape. The two side windows are shattered. I only have to take a few steps forward to see the splotches of dried blood against the office wall inside. There’s a balding man lying face down next to a worn mahogany desk. Bullet holes dot the back of his dark purple polo shirt. I freeze and try to bear the tightness gripping my lungs.
“We gotta go,” whispers Josiah, both of us hit by the stale stench of something bloated. The iron pang of blood. Josiah grabs my shoulder. “Rayland-”
“I know.” I twist around, searching again for even the slightest movement in the trees surrounding the fire station. Branches and shadows meld into vague impressions of dark human outlines. With a shake of my head, they’re gone.
Josiah sprints to the front lawn where our bikes are resting. I rush after him and call, “Wait, Josiah, hold on, man!”
By the time I’ve untied Thunder from the light post, my only surviving teammate is already rolling back onto the main road. Though he waits, the wild-eyed impatience burning behind Josiah’s eyes gets me sprinting. With a sharp tug, I get Thunder up to speed before we take off for Josiah’s parent’s house.
I hope we’re not too late.