“Don’t hurt him!”
As Mr. Knect yells at Reg, I put one foot in front of the other. My chest tightens. Reg and I move past the final row of cots and the lone ambulance parked in the very last bay. With my hands shoved into the side pockets of my jacket, I do my best not to let my trembling fingers show.
Just do what Reg says. No one has to die here.
Josiah’s parents were right. Reg and his people never wanted to share and work together. Not with these weapons lockers and Army boxes full of rations and supplies.
So then, what the hell does he really want?
While Mr. Knect is held back by Bob, I trail after Reg into the darker depths of Engine Company 513. I have to be quick and cooperative; otherwise, they’re going to hurt Josiah’s dad.
Up ahead, Nate slinks around the other side of the ambulance, a half-opened ration hanging from his teeth. He grins at me with his stupid gopher smile. He and Kyler remind me of the worst kind of frat bros I used to cross paths with back on campus when I was still at UNT.
“Get ready to start lockdown,” Reg calls over his shoulder. “Thirty minutes. You all know the drill. I’m taking Rayland for a walk-through.” He pauses by the workbench to the right of a new door. There on the table are two rows of pristine walkie-talkies. Every single one of them looks sturdier than any Josiah and I ever found back in Denton.
The hallway swallows us up while Reg’s group gets to work securing their base. I study the wood panel wall on my right. Pictures of firefighters swirl into one another in the pale winter light. We pass one open office door on the left, then another. Reg seems to be counting the doors we pass.
Something in me trembles. This is about more than the generators and garden back at Josiah’s house. Whatever Reg has in mind, I can feel it creeping over me. He’s testing me.
The office we step in to still has some things in order. The bookshelves stand tall and lean against each other as if exhausted. Two chairs are positioned in front of the cherry wood desk, where Reg has a few maps and additional radios laid out. With a return to the stale and chilled air comes another feeling in my throat: thirst.
Almost as if he can read my mind, Reg opens a drawer in the desk and tosses me a bottle of Dasani. I check the cap; still sealed. He lets out an amused chuckle. “Poisoning you isn’t what I had in mind,” he says, his tone matter of fact.
“Yeah, well, I’d rather be safe,” I mutter.
“I take it Josiah’s parents told you about us,” Reg begins, standing off to one side of the office.
I shrug. “Just what you said about wanting to work together.”
Reg gives a curt nod. “Good,” he says.
Cautious, I crack open the water bottle and take two deep swigs. The water gives every inch of my throat a clean slick feeling. “But there’s more to it than that,” I add, “right?”
Reg sweeps his hand across the walnut shelf built in to the wall in front of me. Six. I count six bullet holes. His fingertips trickle over a couple of hanging plaques. Both of them are dedicated to Mac Hohenberger, Fire Chief. Both of them also have dried blood splattered across their backboards and top plates.
“You’re right,” Reg says at last. “There’s more at stake here, which is why I wanted to talk.”
I drag my eyes in Reg’s direction. He stands beside the fire chief’s desk, which still has a couple of paper holders stacked neatly on top of each other. The remains of a shattered paperweight clock are strewn across the desk and the carpet. I wonder how many bullet holes are on the wall behind me. How many narrowly missed Kyler, his buddy, or the others.
Deciding the direct route is best, I straighten my back. “Cut to the chase,” I snap.
With a gentle rise and fall of his hand, like a kite coasting on an even breeze, Reg remains facing the opposite wall. “Alright,” is his short reply. “I need strong leaders.” He glances left at the broken window behind the desk. A shiver runs along my back before it sinks its teeth into my shoulders. “The two cops we talked about, Owens and Richards, have attacked us three times since we got here a week ago. They think we’re out to hurt others.” He snorts. “Me, of all people…”
From somewhere down the hall comes Kyler’s hoot, then his annoyed shout. “...don’t fuck around, man. Plywood’s heavy.”
Reg swallows and stares out the shattered window. “We lost Jared three days ago when they shot up this entire side of the fire station,” he continues. “Jared was Anita’s husband.”
I swallow what feels like a couple of thumbtacks. Anita’s haunted face drifts back to me. Her grief, once so out of focus, comes into all-too-sharp clarity for me.
Reg goes on. “We had to bury his body in a shallow grave out back.” He jerks his head in the direction of the back side of the fire station.
“I’m sorry,” I tell him, my arms crossed, “but I don’t want to be a part of this, whatever’s going on between you and the cops.”
“You already are.” Reg huffs. “Josiah too. Those cops out there, Cassandra and MarQui, are well trained. They ambushed us. I can’t reason with them. Which is why I want you to try.”
I’m only caught off guard for a couple of seconds. My mouth forms around uneven words. “I’m not a negotiator,” I say with a scoff. “Why are you asking me?”
Now Reg swivels around and stares at a point over my left shoulder. He tips his head in the direction of the garage bay. “Because you seem like the level-headed type,” he says. “Owns and Richards have a weapon, something far more effective against the Swarm than all of our radios and walkie-talkies combined. They would do anything to defend it. Even murder civilians.”
Jesus. Another way to stop the Swarm? If Reg is telling the truth-
Instead of letting my nerves get the best of me, I shrug like I could care less. “So that’s it, then,” I respond. “You’re just a thief.”
Reg’s shoulders sink. “You haven’t seen its power like I have,” he says, faster now. “How do you think those two have made it this long out there? By slaughtering anyone who doesn’t go along with them.”
His excuses reek like raw sewage. “I have no reason to trust you,” I say. I’m boxed in to some narrow space I can’t see.
Reg slips his hand into his back pocket. For a solid ten seconds, he stands there behind the desk, his narrow face frozen in thought. Finally, he straightens up and leans over the maps and radios on the desk. “Rayland, there’s no one else out there.”
If what Reg is saying is true, if Officers Owens and Richards really have some kind of new weapon, then maybe we can do more than just deter the Swarm with static for a few minutes.
Maybe we can kill them.
Reg’s words hook into me and tug hard. “I have to look out for my own.” His index finger points to the shattered window. “Anita saw her husband die less than three days ago. Kyler’s the -” and here his voice and face break in unison - “...Kyler is the only son I have.”
Whatever was chaining my heart closed begins to crumble. Dad’s smile comes to me. His hand reaching down and grasping my small arm. The blood that caked my knuckles. His rumbling voice: “Only fight to protect yourself, son.”
But Reg’s people are fighting a losing battle, too. I can see it in his face.
Reg leans back against the mahogany hutch and runs his fingers through his hair. His breathing is shallow. Another gust of fall air comes sweeping over us. We’re only apart by a few feet, but I might as well be staring at Reg from across a lake.
For the first time since I left Josiah’s house, something in me starts to deflate. The red around my vision dissolves into a pale pink. I want to feel needed like this. It feels...good.
“You have a drive, Rayland,” Reg whispers. “I see it in Michael’s face, too. That vigilance. It’s unrelenting. You two would die to protect the people you love.”
In the next office over, there’s another bang of wood on the carpeted floor. Nate and Kyler tell each other how useless the other one is.
“That’s why I need people like Josiah’s dad,” Reg says at last, running his hand over a walkie-talkie on the desk. “Someone like you. We can stand our ground together.”
“So you threaten to take their house?” Without batting an eye, I raise my index finger at the busted-out window behind Reg. “I couldn’t care less how many people you’re looking after,” I snarl. “You threatened Josiah’s family because you’re scared.”
The bushes outside sway and whisper to each other. The blood splattered across the back desk and shelves refuse to leave my mind.
All sound gets sucked into a vacuum. I’m at the end of a long hall where Reg’s voice carries down and comes to me from all sides. His words are faint. “I am afraid.” He runs his hand through his salt-and-pepper hair. “I’m 46 years old. I’m a widower, and my son stopped listening to me months before the Swarm ever showed up. I’m scared to death.”
There’s your door, Rayland. I take a step forward until I almost bump my hip into the faded office chair closest to me. “Then leave us alone,” I say in a calm voice. “Just let us go our separate ways.”
Reg’s nod is slow, like a wind-up toy still shaking the rust out of its gears. “Maybe that would be best.” There’s a dull thwack-thwack-thwack of a hammer driving a nail through the plywood in the next office over.
“We can handle ourselves,” I say, this time with my inside voice, as my mom always used to say. Whatever the cops are out there doing, it doesn’t have to concern me or Josiah’s family. We can defend our own turf.
When Reg looks up at me, there’s a shift in his muted face. “Be careful, Rayland,” he says, then skirts around the desk and walks past me. “You’re carrying deep pain around with people who have a very shallow sense of perception. Ask yourself if they’re really the ones you want on your side when the Swarm come back.”
The veins in my throat tighten. “The fuck do you know-”
Reg’s radio comes to life at his hip. “Boss.” Evan’s voice is wire-tight and half an octave too high. “It’s almost 10:00. The Swarm should be passing through soon.”
I unclench my aching fist. Reg was just trying to get under my skin. He doesn’t know anything about me.
Reg nods and unclips his radio. “Copy. Wrap up the lockdown.”
“With the two of them here?” Evan sounds both panicked and perplexed.
Reg’s gray eyes bore through me. “No. We’re taking them back.”
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