Rayland...what are you doing?
Dad’s voice comes to me from a distant point. I shake my head. All of this would be easier if I just joined Reg and his group.
No more crucifixes on the walls of Josiah’s house. No more hoping and praying that his parents don’t find out what me and Josiah did last night. I can’t stand another rejection, another decision left out of my hands in the middle of the Swarm.
‘Thank you for bringing us back our son, Rayland.’
I slip into Bob’s red truck, feel the V8 cylinders firing and sending vibrations throughout my whole body, and try to tune out the three women in the back seat as they go on and on about “the end of Texas as we know it.” I’ve made up my mind to leave the Knect house, with its two stories, solid brick walls, crowded chicken coops, and dying garden behind forever.
I look down at my cell phone in my hand. I could survive on my own terms. I have it in me to go south to Waco and look for my family. Mom’s last voicemail is all I have left of her.
Outside my passenger door, Paul wails and clings to his mom while she holds him close. I wince and look away. Mrs. Knect’s eyes get redder the more she pleads with her husband to wait.
There’s a tap on the door. I jolt and turn right. Mr. Knect stands beside the truck. “I’m coming with you,” he says, then glances at the three women in the back seat. A lump swells to life in my throat.
“Mr. Knect, no,” I begin, but he waves me off. Mr. Knect looks up at the ash-colored sky, his steamy breath disappearing before it can touch the low-hanging leafless branches. Josiah and I once raced under those same trees and up to the front of his house, back when we still had teammates and the world still had a strong pulse.
Out on the front driveway, Grace wraps her arm around Paul and asks Josiah, “Dad’s not going with them is he?”
Josiah stands in the driveway in shorts and a hoodie, arm in arm with his family. With his curls swaying in the wind, he stands tall and stares through me. At last, he turns to his little sister. “He is.”
“Dad!” Paul’s wail pierces the air. I grimace and press my hand to my chest.
You don’t want to just leave them behind, Rayland. No matter how much you can’t stand Josiah.
The driver’s side door pops open. Bob squirts one last steaming shot of chew out the side of his mouth before he swings himself into the cab and lets out a hefty sigh. “Don’t mind the ladies,” he tells me with a conspiratorial glance, “They’re always talkin’, like those damn Vietnamese women at the nail salon.” He revs his truck up and adjusts the rearview.
“Oh, fuck off, Bob,” calls Victoria Lanter from her middle spot in the backseat, twirling her curly red hair to one side before she bats her eyelashes. “Only reason you know that is ’cause your wife used to drag your sorry ass to the salon all the damn time.”
“Love ya too, shug,” Bob says before he blows Victoria a kiss and throws the truck into drive. She rolls her eyes and looks back down at the map spread out across her lap. Turning around would draw too much attention, but the one glimpse I caught of Victoria’s map earlier made my stomach go cold. There are red lines snaking across most of the roads. Have they been scavenging for supplies, or are they hunting down people like me and Josiah’s family?
There’s another lady in the back seat who won’t talk. The Hispanic woman who looks older than either Victoria or Daniela is staring out the passenger window. Her eyelids flutter like blinds in the windows of a long-abandoned house. She stares at Josiah’s family as Bob throws his truck into gear. Nobody has told me her name yet, and it doesn’t look like she’s going to open her mouth anytime soon.
Behind us, Reg is loading up with the two younger guys in a Land Rover. Mr. Knect gets into the back seat of their car. Reg calls out something about bringing me and Josiah’s dad back safely to Mrs. Knect. She glares at Reg, her rifle tucked underneath her free arm as she caresses Paul’s face.
Our truck lurches forward. Bob steers us through the front gate of the Knect’s property. “Jesus,” Bob mutters with one last look over his shoulder. “It’s not a damn funeral. Your friend’s family needs to cheer up.”
Fuck off, Bob.
My hand keeps clawing at the faded leather armrest as if my whole body is possessed by some alien parasite. These motions aren’t mine, any more than Bob’s absent-minded finger tapping on the cracked steering wheel are his. Having an alien take over my body is the only good explanation for why I did it. Why I said yes to Reg’s invitation and left the Knect house with them. “Just to talk,” Reg had promised me.
Behind us, the Land Rover peels out and slips on a patch of ice in the cul-de-sac. All of us except Bob and the Latina woman crane our heads around. Reg’s face is washed out in the windshield, but I can still make out how even and calm his eyes are. He rights the Land Rover and falls in line with us, his gaze fixed on me. The other two guys in the back of the Land Rover throw some half-hearted punches at each other. I scoff. What a couple of idiots.
“Them boys are Kyler and Nate,” Bob says as he noses the truck through the first 4-way stop before he scratches his bulging stomach. “They’re our youngest. Kyler is Reg’s boy.”
My veins tighten so hard that I flinch, like someone stuck me with a needle full of x-ray dye. “I...I didn’t think any of you all were related,” is all I can mutter.
“I know.” Bob glances at me. “We don’t look much like family. Not by blood. But Kyler’s all the family that man has left.” Bob does the exact same chin wiggle from side to side from last night, back when it was just him and Evan standing around the dining room table. “Reg and Kyler were the ones who got us together after all this time. That was, what, five weeks ago?
In the rearview, Daniela’s eyes meet Bob’s. “Four. We still had Jared back then.”
“Goddamn cop pigs,” Victoria hisses under her breath. She smacks the map with the back of her hand. “I’m gonna put a bullet in both of their heads the second I get the chance. For Jared.” The older Latina next to Victoria flinches and looks down, the wrinkles around her eyes deepening.
For once, Bob’s broad chest sinks in. “Easy, Victoria,” he growls, both hands gripping harder on the steering wheel. “We’ll get there. Them cops aren’t stupid. We plan, we get the jump on them, and we snuff ’em out.”
Swallowing to keep my truth from spilling out, I turn to Bob. “Other people aren’t the enemy,” I growl, ignoring the pang of embarrassment at my sappy sentimental words. “We need each other. That’s the only way we can stop the Swarm.”
With a grin that could poke holes in his own cheeks, Bob says, “You’re starting to sound like Reg, kid.”
When we get to the fire station, Mr. Knect is the first one out of the Land Rover. He jogs over to check on me as Bob cuts the truck’s engine off.
It’s Mr. Knect’s look, the way he steadies his shaky breath, that conveys his promise without a single spoken word: I’ll watch out for you, Rayland. You’re a part of our family too.
I step out and look around the empty driveway leading up to the main fire station. Behind me, Bob shuts the driver side door as the three women file out of the backseat. Bob steps up in between me and Josiah’s dad, his jaw churning away at the dip he has stuffed into his cheek.
“Rayland and I stick together,” Mr. Knect says to Bob with a gruffness in his voice. A twitch runs along the side of Bob’s neck. He shakes his head and looks at the building before us.
“Whatever makes ya feel safer.”
Mr. Knect grips my shoulder. That lean jaw with the patchy beard. The lines that form around his eyes when he gives me his best smile. Josiah may have some physical features in common with his old man, but he doesn’t have a fraction of the hardness and caution I see in Mr. Knect now.
“We should get inside,” Reg says before running his hand over the hood of the Land Rover. “The Swarm have been rolling through here every morning.” He slings an assault rifle onto his back, then squints up at the patchy clouds and pylon wires swinging side to side in the wind.
More sickness curdles in the pit of my stomach the closer we get to Reg. I can’t help but think it’s me and Josiah’s fault. For all I know, we may have led the Swarm from Denton to Argyle.
Behind Reg, Kyler Alteo shoves his hands in his hoodie pockets and gives the gray sky a hard stare. He’s got a bird-like nose and pale cheeks. Kyler presses his sneaker against the open passenger door, which swishes shut with a low thump. His eyes round out once we catch each other’s gaze. “One of these days we’ll kill all of ’em,” Kyler assures me in his nasally voice.
“As if,” Nate says with a snort before knocking shoulders with Kyler. “You’re the one who tried to shoot at them. Idiot.” Nate’s hair spills out across his shoulders, not unlike Josiah’s messy curls.
“Knock it off, guys,” Bob grumbles. He signals to Evan, who nods before slipping his assault rifle into his gloved hands and falling in line with us. Kyler and Nate sulk after Reg, who joins Evan in scoping out the perimeter of the brick fire station. Their shelter. I grimace to try and stop more bile from rising up my throat. This early into the apocalypse and they’ve already got their defenses locked down tight.
Once we’re close to the entrance, Mr. Knect leans over. “Exits,” he whispers as soon as we follow Nate and Kyler through the front door. I glance at the window to my left first, then the trashed welcome desk and the two chairs lying askance in the darkest corner of the front office.
“Safest place around,” Kyler says with a warble in his throat, sweeping his arm out once we pass into the connecting hallway. There’s another door on the left. This one opens into a wider space. My heart kickstarts into double time before a parched “Damn” slips out of my mouth.
In front of me, the garage bay is lined with half a dozen green Army cots and military supply boxes. In between the rows of cots are waist-high gun racks. My chest tightens. Through the diamond-shaped holes in the gun rack doors, I can see semi-automatic rifles and handguns stored away. At the foot of each cot is a black Sterilite footlocker that I recognize from my cousin’s Infantryman days. Though most of the boxes are shut, Bob struts past me and Mr. Knect. He reaches the first footlocker, pops it open, and waves us over.
“My God.” Mr. Knect jolts when we get closer. Inside the container are silver air-tight bags. Army rations, dozens of them piled to the brim of the footlocker. His eyes flick to Bob, who slaps his thigh and barks out a series of short laughs.
“That was my reaction, Mike. We hit the jackpot here, baby. Can you believe it?”
The labels alone are enough to make my stomach churn: Mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, meatloaf. Holy shit, they have everything. Maybe enough for weeks, even between all eight of them.
Or all fourteen of us, if we decided to join up.
“They’re not ours.”
Bob, Mr. Knect, and I swivel around at the same time. The mute woman from my truck is standing in the door frame, her shoulder-length hair melding with her neck in the shadows. Only when she steps forward can I see the faint paranoia lapping at her eyes.
Daniela appears behind the wild-eyed lady and gently laces her arm around the woman’s shoulders. “It’s alright, Anita,” she says, “the soldiers would have wanted us to have their supplies. Trust me.”
Anita murmurs to herself as Daniela and Victoria lead her to a cot on the north side of the garage. While the women talk in hushed voices, their holstered pistols and watchful glances remind me that we’re foreigners in their base of operations. No one is going to let their guard down while Mr. Knect and I are here.
“We’re fortunate,” Reg says from my eight o’clock, sinking onto his haunches with his arms folded. He stares into the Sterilite box that Bob had opened. “The military must have come through here when everything first went down.”
“What happened to them?” I ask before I can stop myself. Even though the carnage of dismembered soldiers scattered around the I-35 underpass keeps clawing its way into my brain, I have to figure out what else Reg and his people know.
Reg shrugs. “I want to believe that they evacuated along with other survivors days ago,” he says. “My group and I weren’t exactly ready to put all our trust in the military, though.”
“Not even with those two deranged cops running amok out there,” Bob says with a snort. He stares out the narrow oval-shaped windows in the middle of the closed garage door ahead of him.
I’m barely able to stand up when Kyler and Nate circle back around the ambulance ahead. Nate waggles his eyebrows before slipping his revolver back into his side holster. “All clear, boss,” he tells Reg.
“Kyler, you two get the plywood from the side office,” Reg says with a direct point at his son. “We need to get those windows in the back offices boarded up before tonight.”
Though Kyler swallows a grumble, he nods and runs his hand through his sandy hair. “Alright, dad,” he mutters. Kyler punches Nate, who taps the side of his sneaker against his Sterilite locker. There’s writing on the side:
The words are messy. I raise an eyebrow and try not to scoff at Nate’s idea of a genius pun.
Reg’s hand clamps onto my shoulder. He stands between me and Josiah’s dad. “I’d like to talk with you, Rayland,” he says through half-gritted teeth. “Alone.”