We catch our break when the storm clears up a quarter to 6:00. That leaves us less than an hour until sunset, when the Swarm are most likely to come out and hunt for new prey.
I kneel on Josiah’s yoga mat in the center of the living room and say a little prayer to myself. I hope on our lucky stars the semi is still there. The B & O Trucking decal on the side is a clear image I can replay. On my last easy jog around the cul-de-sac over a year ago, I had looked over my shoulder at the 18-wheeler cab that was parked on Fox Hollow Road. Through the windshield, I saw the black microphone cable hanging down from what I’d assumed was one of those trucker CB radios.
“The truck was always parked out front,” I tell Josiah as we stand on opposite ends of the kitchen island. I study the rows of portable radios and ear protectors before us. “None of these are strong enough to go more than a couple of miles from here, but if we can get to a CB, we might be able to get in touch with other people.”
“Got it.” He sets his flashlight down and blinks. “Should we uninstall it?” Josiah’s question takes me off guard, and I think about the practicality of lugging around a CB radio with us on our trip to Argyle.
“We can try,” I reply, fiddling with one of the newer walkies like that will chase away my doubt. After all, we have the tools.
Josiah nods before he reaches up and twists his curly hair into a bun, which he holds in place with his last hair tie. “I’ll help you, then. Who knows, maybe we’ll find someone who knows how to reinstall it. Could come in handy when we start looking for other survivors out there on the road.”
More of Josiah’s overbearing naivety. Great. “Yeah...maybe.” I crack my neck and watch the sun disappear over the red fence in our backyard. “At the very least, we’re going to get an SOS out.”
“As long as the truck’s battery is still charged,” Josiah adds, his words the final nail in the coffin that’s about to bury my last shred of hope for our mission. I let my silence speak for me as Thunder comes up to us and looks at us with his sad eyes. He’s right; if there isn’t juice left in the battery, then the whole trip will have been for nothing.
“We’ll have to take Thunder,” Josiah says, and we share a knowing but strained glance. I want to feel happy that Josiah can read my thoughts so easily, but all I notice are the pins and needles jabbing at my chest. After my dad was killed, I felt the world lean away from me, leaving me suspended over the vacuum of space. The flings with other guys had helped. Even smoking weed with Tyler and Brad had shut down part of bereavement’s machine. But nothing was ever enough. Nothing except Josiah holding me close without doing anything more romantic. How much farther away I feel from the abyss when he’s in my presence.
I clear my throat and look down at our dog. “You gotta be our eyes and ears, buddy.” Thunder whimpers. I pick up one of our strongest radios. “We’ll take six each. And our revolver. Just in case.”
A shadow of pain and fear crosses Josiah’s eyes at the mention of the gun. He looks down at his calloused hands, at his bike helmet dangling from his fingers, and clears his throat. Instead of speaking to his anxiety, I slip the revolver into my waistband and pull my own helmet on. Ready or not, we have to be prepared to shoot someone. It’s a thought that I’ve mulled over dozens of times, even before Josiah and I risked our lives to go out and save Thunder from the Swarm.
Other people may not hesitate to kill us. We have to be ready to end them first.
“To wound, not to kill, hopefully.” Josiah slips his helmet on and clips the fasteners together. His eyes round out in a plea for mercy. “Right?”
I stare at him dead on. “Right.”
Outside, dusk is slowly getting eaten away by the cancer of nightfall. I give Thunder one more scratch behind his ears, then remind Josiah of the cracks in the road and the sharp turns, especially on the downslope where Timberidge meets Fox Hollow Road in a rounded corner with a nasty blind spot. He nods every few seconds and stares off.
This is it.
“I hate these early sunsets,” I mutter, listening to the bushes rustle in the front yard. Josiah and I have our bikes at our sides. We’re standing before the front door, the door that’s been shut for the past two weeks. He licks his lips before he replies. “Me too.”
Josiah has my portable toolbox in his dark blue drawstring, which rests against his back. I know we’re going to need at least a couple of screwdrivers and ratchets in order to make this work. Especially since I’m pretty sure neither one of us has ever used a CB, much less tried to uninstall one.
When the wind dies down, I pry the front door open, thankful its hinges don’t squeak. Thunder doesn’t bark at all, only pants and tugs at his leash to lead us out. I have to hold him tight, steering my road bike down the front path and around the skeleton of a dead rose bush.
The front lawn is nothing more than dead grass and patches of leaves. Wilderness Street looks clear. The streetlight across from our corner casts only its own shadow in the partial moonlight. I wonder how many human remains litter the subdivision roads after these past seven weeks of hiding out.
How many of those remains were once our friends.
Goosebumps flare up across my bare arms. I clutch my handlebars tighter.
“Easy boy,” Josiah whispers as Thunder tugs at my arm. Josiah reaches over and, instead of grabbing Brad’s dog by his collar, strokes the back of his neck in slow sweeping motions. That seems to get Thunder to chill out at least a little bit.
We make our way around the side of the Cy House and past the closed garage door, dead pine needles crackling under our shoes. Once we’re beyond Josiah’s SUV, I slowly let my knuckles loosen up. Two cars, a red truck and a forest green Honda, are parked at odd angles in the front lawn of the house catty corner to us, their rear wheels still hanging off the curb. The driver’s side window of the Honda is smashed open. I swallow. Maybe the dark figure slumped against the steering wheel is just a trick of the lighting. But the blood spatter on the dash and front windshield dispel my sad little wish real quick.
For a few sweet seconds, I’m unchained as I straddle my bike and pedal. Both of our bikes sing softly, the spokes cutting through the wind. The vibrations from the road shake my fingers and dance up my arms. I start to breathe harder. We reach the corner of Timber Ridge and Fox Hollow not a minute later, the gradual dip in the road flattening out. Thunder slows to a trot. Beads of sweat gather in the faint crater in the center of my chest. Josiah rides beside me and lets out a soft, “Woo hoo.”
We really are free.
Just a few more houses to go.
Then it’s there: the green and white semi cab, completely intact and without so much as a flat tire or cracked windshield. I thank our lucky stars and pick up my cadence, Thunder and Josiah right beside me. Josiah is already following our game plan and takes Thunder’s leash from my hand in one fluid motion. When I see that Thunder’s switched sides so that he’s following Josiah, I pull up to the front of the semi and dismount with a smooth backward kick and swing of my right leg. Flying dismount, baby.
I hop up onto the side step and tug at the door handle. No dice. “Dammit.”
“Check for a key box,” Josiah whispers, nodding to the underside of the cab before he leans his bike across mine. I bob my head and start running my hand slowly around the base of the cab. I take my time, making sure to not cut myself on any metal edges. Without a first aid kit, getting a cut could start a chain reaction I can’t stop: infection, trouble swallowing, a fever, racing heart, muscle spasms -- and death.
I have no luck on the driver’s side, and sure as hell don’t know where else to feel other than around the fuel tank and wheel wells. My heart does jumping jacks in my chest when the leaves overhead rustle.
Then my fingers come across a tiny plastic box under the passenger’s step. I pop open the magnetic box and smile down at the spare key. “We’re in business.”
As I hold the key up and let it shine against the glaring moon, my eyes focus on the door handle on the passenger’s side. “You’d better not be unlocked,” I mutter, stepping up and giving the handle a tug. The door doesn’t budge. I snicker before inserting the key and pop the door open.
I only have to look at the top of the front windshield to get that relief that I’d hoped for. The CB rests flush in its built-in mount. I set my revolver barrel down in one of the cupholders, my nostrils flaring against the stale smell of cigarette smoke and something even more bitter -- motor oil, maybe. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see Josiah hopping up and down on the driver’s side. I snort and shake my head.
“I gotcha.” I roll my eyes before lunging sideways and popping the door open. Behind Josiah, Thunder paces and yanks at his leash, which Josiah tied around the nearest tree trunk.
“Hey, so there’s an antenna on the back of the cab.” Josiah jerks his thumb back, his eyes alight with excitement. “I’ll work on unscrewing it while you check the radio out. Sound good?”
“Perfect, thanks Josiah.” I salute to him, which he responds to with a quick grin before he passes me my toolbox. Then I remember our plan and call out, “Hold off for a sec. Gonna see if we can get through to anyone first.”
“Okay, now to figure you out,” I say to the radio, gliding my hand over the mic and the buttons. COBRA 29 LTD CHROME. Fancy sounding name. I sure as hell don’t know how to tune the darn thing, but I figure testing out the buttons and dials is the fastest way to learn.
I carefully unhook the mic before flicking the power on. Nothing. Then I remember the key and jam it into the ignition. The power kicks on before amber lights flood out from the center console. “Thank you,” I murmur, then open my toolbox and slip the screwdriver out.
Thunder barks twice in quick succession, his yaps clear as day through the open door. “Shh, shh, quiet, boy.” I crane my neck with the mini Maglite in my mouth, casting the light over the shallow sleeper space in the back. The stick shift jabs into my side, and I let out a winded “Oof.” On my second pass with my flashlight, I spot a crinkled Lays bag on the floorboard and reach for it. The sound of tiny bits of chips is sweet relief. I toss the bag outside to Thunder, who goes to town and tears into it.
Once the center console reaches its full glow, I raise the mic to my mouth. With the PTT button pressed, I close my eyes and listen. Nothing but static. I clench the dial labeled RF Gain and open my dry mouth. “Check 1-2. Check 1-2.” Talkback is good as my voice echoes back. Please, please. “Check 1-2. This is Rayland Mark Calderón. I’m a survivor. Josiah Knect is with me. We’re at-” I cut myself off and let go of the button. There’s no telling who might be on the other end: survivors. Looters. Someone worse. I lick my lips and speak to the infinite airwaves again. “We’re survivors holding out in Denton. Is anyone out there?”
More warbled noises spill out of the mic. I watch the needle on the SWR meter dip just above the “1” mark before rolling back to the far right. Seconds pass by. When I hear nothing, I study the front panel of the radio and note the four screws at each corner. Might as well start unscrewing.
I crank the DYNAMIKE knob all the way to the right before I raise my screwdriver to the first screw. I repeat my message into the mic, my tongue weighted down like I just took a spoonful of honey. “We need help. Please, anybody.”
In the driver’s side rearview, I can see Josiah hanging onto the cab and studying the long antenna on the back. He catches me looking at him and purses his lips in pained defeat. “If my dad were here, he’d probably know how to uninstall this thing,” Josiah calls. “He’s good at tinkering with electronics.”
If my dad were here, he wouldn’t be able to help us. I squeeze my eyes shut, anger rushing into my veins. I hold back from telling Josiah to keep it down. He knows how this works.
“This is...eutenant Cassandra Owens. Do you read me, Rayland?”
I jump so high that my head bangs against the roof of the cab. “Holy sh- Yes, yes, I copy!” I jam the screwdriver in and begin untwisting screw number two, keeping the PTT button pressed down.
There is a gust of wind so strong that the semi rocks from side to side. In the rearview, Josiah goes rigid. He raises his eyes to the treeline to my right. Though the voice inside my heads screams at me to not look, I turn and stare out the passenger window. The line of pitch black trees across the street is swaying back and forth. Particles begin to pool and hovering in between branches.
We woke them up.
“Time to move!” The tension in Josiah’s voice slices through the cab. He lets go of the antenna and drops down. I swear and release the PTT button, listening to the jumbled static rise and fall. The third screw comes out and falls to the floorboard.
Her voice comes through six seconds later. “...We’re...ere, Ray... I’m with my partner, Officer MarQui Rich…”
“I copy! Copy!” I almost scream into the mic before tucking it in the crook of my neck. I yank the final screw out, then fumble with the different colored wires behind the CB, finding the point at which they are held together with butt connectors. Which ones? Shit! I twist and twist, the wind picking up as leaves dance across the hood.
“We can meet you!” My voice is loud and clear. “Just tell us where you guys are.”
“I read you...land. Officer Richards and I are... -olding out near the - Argyle fire sta-”
The driver’s side door gets thrown open before Josiah sticks his head in. “I know where that is! And holy God, you found someone!”
But can we trust her? “We have to go!” I blurt into the mic, then twist and yank at the fourth and final wire, the plastic butt connector refusing to give. “Lieutenant Owens, Josiah and I will make it out to the fire station tomorrow afternoon.” Then I pause. “We’re armed.”
“Good, be careful, there are others out here,” Lieutenant Owens says, fierce determination in her voice. “They’re killers...Officer Richards and I are-”
More static overrides her voice. I drop my screwdriver as soon as the last screw falls into my lap. What? Her and Officer Richards are what?
The first traces of deep purple haze start to rise up over the two-story house across the street. The air pressure is building, and I can barely catch my breath. Thunder is barking like crazy now, choking himself the more he yanks against his leash.
Josiah tugs at my sleeve. The plastic housing and radio come free the second the cab lights die out. When Josiah takes my arm, I can feel the last wire give. In a flash, I process what’s waiting for me outside the passenger window: the silver glint of the Swarm, like bits of metal swirling in their nebulous bodies. The red gleam of all their orb-like eyes grows brighter.
I shove the CB into my drawstring bag. Josiah and I topple out of the cab and crash into the front lawn. My head strikes something hard -- the edge of the sidewalk, maybe. My brain’s a match that’s just been struck, and I clutch at the burning spot and stare up through the branches. When I shut my eyes, I’m high again like I was last fall, when Tyler, Brad, and I had gone on a night walk to clear my head. God, that hit from the blunt had run me over like a train. I couldn’t stop coughing. “Take it easy, man.” Tyler’s grin had glinted in the midnight dark right before we had landed on our backs in a stranger’s front lawn. “It’ll pass.”
“Rayland, come on!” Josiah, in the present, is on his feet and tugs at my arm. I’m holding it. I have the CB, now bagged, cradled against my chest. Thunder’s barking is a whisper compared to the roar of the Swarm. They slice through the trees and sweep down into the road. Josiah yanks one live radio from his waistband, then another before chucking them over the semi. He yells at the oncoming Swarm.
I throw my drawstring bag onto my back while Josiah unties Thunder. Then we run, snatch our bikes, and fly onto our seats. I pray for a smooth road. I pray that Thunder will run faster than he’s ever run in his six dog years of existence.
I pray for the chance to stop running. To let the Swarm sweep me off my bike and end me right here. How much easier it would be to stop running and face my own death.
Instead, I pedal harder, the CB rubbing through my drawstring as it slams over and over again against my back. Pain is an afterthought. The static flows from the remaining radios across our waists. Now my ears are ringing, flooded with the Swarm’s drone. I slam my shoes against the pedals until I’m close to hyperventilating. One loose shoelace or string from my bag getting caught in my wheel and I’ll crash, go over my handlebars, eat shit, and become food for the Swarm. Pedal, pedal, pedal.
I right myself as Josiah shoots ahead of me and makes a beeline for the Cy House. “We’re almost there!” His cry gives me another shot of adrenaline.
Neither one of us looks back. Not even when the Swarm’s cries grow shrill with pained desperation.