The Swarm and the Flyer

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Dust and Parting

It’s there, in my own burning hands: the warmth of Josiah’s fingers, a sensation that almost knocks me over before I can shut it down. I’m running, heaving, trying to make my way through the deepening darkness of night. Josiah pulls me on. I had dropped my bike in the driveway with a scrape of metal on concrete less than two seconds ago. Now the moon disappears behind a cluster of clouds. I wince, praying that it’s not one of the Swarm getting ready to swoop down on me.

Then Josiah’s presence leaves me entirely.

I vault over a bush and into the front lawn of the Cy House. My breath is hammering at my ears. Thunder scampers ahead. Josiah is a few feet ahead of me and spins around the brick pillar heading the house, having already rolled his bike into the nearby flower bed without a second thought. I skirt the dead rose bush and nearly get caught up in Thunder’s leash when he darts ahead of me.

I throw myself into the open front door, the distant mechanical screech of several Swarm finally fading away completely before Josiah slams the door shut behind me. He presses his fingertips against the lopsided plywood sheet, panting harder than I’ve ever seen him do. In the sudden dull silence of our two-story refuge, I realize that I’m close to hyperventilating.

“There are people,” I gasp, sliding down the back of the couch. Thunder slips away from us with a whimper. “Other survivors. Holy shit.”

“Thank God.” That’s all Josiah can get out. He takes a couple more steps before slumping against the wall, his curly hair springing out from his man bun in all directions.

Through the pounding of my head and the ache in my ears, I remember the radio and slip my drawstring bag off. Josiah crawls over to check out our latest bounty, his lips thinning out into a smile that’s beyond relieved. Then it falls off once I pull the CB radio out completely. The front face is all smashed up. Bits of plastic and loose wire come out with my hand, then crumble to the floor.

Shit in a basket.

“Oh, just our luck,” Josiah murmurs before leaning back. I droop my head. I must’ve smashed the radio against the sidewalk when we fell out of the semi.

Doesn’t matter, though. We got through to two living people! And we know where Lieutenant Owens and Officer Richards will be waiting for us: Argyle Fire Station 513. With Josiah’s SUV and our supplies, making the drive should be doable.

Keeping my shoulders slumped and my knees pressed into the hardwood floor, I look right at my friend. “Thanks for saving me back there,” I tell him.

Josiah, still sitting on top of his legs, raises his arm and reveals a splotch of raw red skin that glints in the pale beam of my flashlight. “You would’ve done the same for me,” he says, then winces when he grazes his wound against his other elbow. “This is gonna need some rubbing alcohol…”

I let my chest rise and fall with my hurried breath, cradling the remains of the radio in my lap like a puppy while Josiah goes and gets the alcohol. I close my eyes with a shaky gasp.

You’d be proud of me, dad.

I wave Thunder over, and he comes trotting along after a while, though with his head hung low and eyes drooping. I scratch him behind the ears and whisper, “You did good tonight, buddy.”

Cassandra Owens and MarQui Richards. Two cops. At least, that’s what Owens had said they were. Whether or not it’s true, we’ll have to see.

“It’s just over eight miles to the fire station, and another mile from there to my house,” Josiah says in the morning, coming out of his room with a sleeping bag rolled up and slung over his shoulder. “But I don’t know how clear the roads are going to be.”

I step out of my room and scratch my patchy beard. Sunlight blares in through the blinds and floods the upstairs loft. I lean on the banister railing overlooking the kitchen and watch dust particles drift down. “Probably not any more than I-35,” I say, holding up the triple-layered plastic bags full of the canned goods that we have left. I tilt my head toward Josiah’s red Specialized bike and my black Velano road bike, which are downstairs next to the front door. “At least we’ll have our bikes if we have to leave your car behind,” I say.

Josiah’s smile is grim, even as he takes our baggies of food. “Guess we’ll really see how in shape we are,” he says.

After Josiah takes the next batch of our canned goods to his SUV, I scan the upstairs loft area one more time. The newer couches and family photos that are not mine. It doesn’t take but a couple of seconds for Tyler’s loud voice to come back to me. His red face. It was a dark December night; there were boxes lining the walls and railing of the upstairs loft. Tyler pushed up against my chest, forcing me back into my bedroom. Brad and Eric hurried up the stairs, Brad the first one to get a hold of Tyler’s arm. He stared me down, the ice blue of his irises going glacial. Tyler’s bong was resting in the trash can next to the garage. That’s where I had told myself it belonged. Especially after days of our newest roommate packing up his stuff and not telling any of us when exactly he planned on moving out. That was Tyler for you.

I was fucking tired: of the weed Tyler had been bringing in, of not knowing if I was exactly ready enough to reinstall Tinder and OkCupid on my phone again. When Eric asked me and Tyler in his usual reasonable voice what was going on, I reminded myself that I wasn’t the only one sick of the smell of weed and the random friends who kept coming over.

Then Tyler pushed off me and Brad, jabbed his finger in my face, and shouted, “You lost us the fucking Cy House, man!”

In the present, all I need to do is blink hard before the darkness from that night recedes. I’m back in the upstairs loft, the whole room bathed in a golden glow. The broken CB radio is tucked in the crook of my right arm. No more bikes with their back wheels lodged in between the side railing of the loft. No more smell of weed. I can’t pick up my phone to see when my next hookup is going to be ready to meet up and mess around. One, after another, after another, until I’m too numb to feel anymore hurt or hate.

“I got the house back,” I whisper to the vacant space, tiny specs of dust drifting in the stillness. I set the smashed radio from the semi in the middle of the empty carpeted floor and tell Tyler’s dead memory one last thing: “Not that it matters to you anymore.”

The dead can’t hold grudges.

It’s foggy outside, the wall of grey cutting our line of sight down to maybe half a mile. Josiah and I load up the last of our things before we get into his SUV. I slip my seatbelt on and study the peeling yellow walls of the garage, the abandoned boxes. I don’t even try to stop myself from lurching forward when Josiah throws his car into drive. This place was our home, our sanctuary, in both the before and after of our world. The goodbyes all feel the same.

“I’m gonna miss this place,” Josiah murmurs. He sighs deeply, noses his SUV out, and pulls away. We have no way to close the garage door. It will remain open and exposed for the rest of all time.

I don’t say anything, just raise my hand and wave at the Cy House -- like I did with my mom and dad when they pulled out of that same driveway, the one with the sharp incline. Like I did when my teammates left for Nationals in South Carolina last year, Josiah’s SUV piled high with our bikes and transition bags.

The memories fall away. I can’t pick them up, can’t keep fumbling with them in this fog. I ground myself by looking at my watch, then scratch Thunder’s head once he pops into the front of the SUV to stare out at the ashen world ahead of us.

It’s September 26, 2016.

“Dad, why do people learn how to shoot?

I stare out the broken passenger window of Josiah’s SUV, my revolver in the side slot of the door. Wind rushes over my face and long hair. I wonder where that memory of me as a kid even came from, now that we’re on the road to the Argyle Fire Station and, Josiah hopes, his family.

“Barring any serious roadblocks,” he says over the rush of wind, “I’m hoping we can get to the fire station in an hour, maybe an hour and a half.” Josiah’s eyes are saucers, probably from the shock of being out in the open world again. Trees stand lopsided in the torn-up yard to our right, though most of their branches have been snapped off and scattered across the pale yellow grass. The last two houses we pass are hollow, their broken windows staring out at us with tired glances. There are shards of metal and broken glass still lining Colorado Boulevard, which is the first main road we turn onto once we’re out of the neighborhood.

My stomach flips in on itself. If it wasn’t for the fog, would we still be able to see the wrecked DART train behind us? The crumpled remains of Tyler’s truck back on the tracks? Or did the Swarm take it all away the day they killed our teammates?

I swallow and rip my eyes away from the rearview. “Either way,” I mutter, “we’re prepared.”

Prepared? The dead bodies and smashed cars Josiah maneuvers around seem to laugh at me without a sound. Jesus, Rayland, you just got out into the real world after two weeks of being holed up in the Cy House. Don’t start acting like you’re invincible, for chrissakes.

Josiah takes one last look at the rearview before he gives his SUV more gas. It rattles and groans. We had agreed before leaving that I’d be our watchman. I keep my eyes peeled, using the pair of binoculars we’d found in one of the houses we’d raided last week to scope out the road ahead. But there’s only the immobility of wreckage and human life long since wiped out.

“Red light up ahead,” I say, lowering the binoculars before putting on my best grin. Josiah’s quick and effortless laughter is much appreciated, and I let my smile linger even after we pass through the three-way intersection. The abandoned bowling alley appears on the right, its neon front sign long since burned out. In the back, Thunder keeps right on running around the folded seats, his tongue lolling out while he savors the air funneling in through our open windows. He does his best not to trip over our stacked bikes and luggage.

The sun comes out, peeking at first from behind its shield of clouds before announcing itself outright once we turn onto 280. Josiah has to nose his way through lines of cars that are backed up, but he’s not afraid to knock a few bumpers. Eventually he jumps the sidewalk, the frame of his SUV screeching out of resentment. I set the binoculars aside and stare out at the mall to my right. Those once brightly lit hallways and stores are now ghost towns. All that’s left on the outside are shattered windows, busted up cars -- but no bodies. Not even human limbs.

I pivot in my seat and look back. There’s a splotch of deep red still visible on both headrests of the lowered seats. The nerves in my stomach crawl, and I fight not to close my eyes. I know that if I do, Brad and Ashley will be there in the backseat, their heads slumped over and blood splattered across their faces and green UNT cycling shirts.

“I know you did everything you could,” I say, turning so that I can just see Josiah’s expression out of the corner of my eye. His shoulders stiffen, but I keep going. “It’s not your fault. What happened to our teammates.”

“That’s what I keep trying to tell myself.” Josiah is gentle in his speech and keeps his hands loose on the steering wheel. How could he have protected our teammates when the Swarm were bearing down on them? When we were trapped in our line of cars and watching those living clouds spiral towards us, all of us sure that we were going to die less than two blocks from the Cy House?

For a second, I think Josiah might start to open up to me about losing our friends that day. My psychologist instincts are usually half decent, and I trust in my ability to hold this space for Josiah. For myself, too. Instead, he guides his SUV onto the bare dirt path marked off with construction cones in the right lane, which, thankfully, the drivers before us hadn’t thought to use. I watch Josiah, but he keeps his mouth shut. I turn and rest my head against the window, watching as we pass a charred building that once used to be a local coffee shop.

“I wish I had done more, too,” I say in a hoarse voice, determined not to let Josiah lose himself in his guilt. “Just know that you saved lives that day. I think that Brad, Ashley, Tyler, all of them, would have wanted us to believe that we did our best.”

Josiah flashes me a quick thankful look, then focuses back on the three-lane road ahead. “I just hope they found peace,” he says. “Going back...” Here Josiah pauses to blink and let his tears spill over. “Going back home for the people I care about is the most important thing to me. It’s how my parents raised me to be.” He reaches over and uncaps his bottle of water before taking a few deep gulps. When I offer him a tissue, he half smiles and thanks me, then takes it before dabbing at his eyes.

The sideways look Josiah casts me is both curious and prying. I grunt and clear my throat, then look down at my lap. “I know, I still want to know my rescue plan for my mom and sister.”

“Dude, yes,” he says with his usual measure of eagerness. “Not if, but when, you get ahold of them again. They were in Waco the last time you’d heard from them, right?”

I look up when shadows drift out of the wall of fog ahead of us. My nerves fire into overdrive the second I realize what I’m looking at: over half a dozen military vehicles, all of them jammed at the intersection of I-35 and the road we’re on. We both lean closer to the dash, our mouths rolling open almost in unison. There are no less than ten Jeeps, Humvees, and military trucks, all nose to nose in a makeshift barricade across the underpass. Some are gnarled together, their warped bumpers and crushed hoods interlaced like metal roots.

“Yeah,” I say, dropping my binoculars before I reach for the revolver and grip it. “Last I heard.”

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