The Encounter Beyond Goatman's Bridge
Even the military couldn’t fight off the Swarm.
Josiah inches his SUV ahead, careful to weave between the first two military trucks that are pressed up against the pillars of the underpass. His tires crunch over broken glass, which litters both the sidewalk and the asphalt. I hold my breath and gently squeeze Thunder’s shaggy nape. He stopped pacing back and forth to stick his head in between mine and Josiah’s seats, and now Thunder keeps right on panting in my face and staring out the cracked windshield.
There are dead soldiers. Dozens of them, sprawled out across the road like watermelons dropped from the highway above. Their fatigues are little more than shredded tatters. I retch before letting go of Thunder and covering my mouth, my grip on the .38 revolver loosening.
“We can do this,” Josiah says, his eyes wide and his chest rising and falling. He turns the steering wheel one way, then the other when the side of his car scrapes against the next Humvee. I look at him with a low groan. “You got this,” I tell him. “J-just focus on the road.”
The muddled darkness draws us in deeper. There’s a sick squelch of bloated flesh as the car rolls over a body. Josiah cries out and lets go of the wheel. I reach for it and steer us around the last of the Army trucks. I wince. There’s a burst of sunlight. Just like that, we’re through the underpass. Josiah is sobbing and shaking his head. I tell him to brake, and when he does, I unbuckle my seatbelt and say, “Let me take over. It’s alright, man. I got this.”
I wait to comfort Josiah until we get out and meet in front of his car. My arms find a natural resting spot around his back and just above his waist. He sobs and shakes his head. I’m only an inch taller than my friend, but something in my heart stirs and tells me we’re on even ground. I hold him close, scanning the wreckage before me. When the smell of decaying flesh has stopped burning the inside of my nose, another odor takes its place.
It’s from Josiah, I realize with a start. The scent of patchouli and citrus is warm and fills my lungs. It overrides every ounce of fear I’m feeling and carries me off into a distant haze. Whether I’m longing for Josiah, a place to call safe in this new world, or closure for so many past losses, I can’t tell.
Josiah and I drive for a while in a vacuum of heavy silence, the steering wheel now in my hands. The sun bores through the clouds and casts a shimmering haze over the lines of cars before us. Though the scent of Josiah’s musk is still with me, reality comes rushing back, a wakeup call that is both pitying and harsh.
Now’s not the time. With Josiah, it may never be the right time.
Another military truck rests against the crumpled telephone pole down Lillian Miller Parkway, tossed against it like a toy. I shiver. That was how the DART train had looked when the Swarm had lifted it off its tracks: like a damn kid’s toy floating in the air. I can still remember how my heart stopped that day, even before the Swarm had descended to wipe our whole convoy out.
The traffic grows worse the closer Josiah and I get to Argyle. Not only are the roads backed up with empty cars and trucks, but several vehicles line the sidewalks on either side of the road, too. When we reach the blocked-off intersection of Teasley and Robinson Road some twenty minutes later, I think we might be at the end of the line. With a jolt shocking my stomach, I hit the brakes, then throw the SUV into park and smack my palm against the wheel.
“There’s no space to get through,” I mutter, then jerk my head away when Thunder tries to lick me. Josiah doesn’t say anything, just strokes Thunder’s fur in an absent-minded kind of way. I glance down at the revolver in the side pocket of the door before focusing back on the intersection, where three delivery trucks collided head on and crushed another two cars beneath their pileup.
Nobody said leaving the Cy House behind would be the hardest part of our day.
It takes us less than five minutes to get our bikes and all the gear that we can carry down from the back of Josiah’s SUV. I put three walkie-talkies and a couple of radios in Josiah’s bag, then have him place the rest in my own cycling bag. We finish by loading up with as many cans of food as we can haul without getting too weighted down.
I only have to look up at the sky, and their voices begin to build and charge at me. How our teammates had screamed. How they’d run, crawled to try and get to the Cy House before-
Come on, Rayland. Focus.
Though my back strains the more I pedal, the air on my face is a little bit of sweet relief. There are fewer bodies out here, but the storefronts we pass are a mess. Torn-up cardboard boxes and plastic bags flutter around empty parking lots. I can’t tell whether it was looters or the Swarm who smashed every window along the strip mall, but the uncertainty doesn’t faze me.
This is their world now; we’re just guests in the Swarm’s hellish kingdom.
At the T-intersection of Teasley and Old Alton Road, we come to two rows of cars that are squeezed tightly together. I brake and ease my right foot down to the road, waiting for my back bike wheel to stop spinning. This is too neat for a pileup. Too deliberate. Four mid-sized Toyota sedans are sandwiched between another four trucks. A single message is scrawled across the side of the blockade in red spray paint: DANGER. TURN BACK.
I look to Josiah, who has his arms propped up on his thighs as he straddles his bike. We stand in the middle of the three-way intersection. The dead traffic lights bob and groan in the faint breeze. My eyes trace every letter on the sign, then fall to the numerous chains that are strung through each of the bumpers. Thunder sniffs around the cars before raising his hind leg and taking a whiz on one of the front tires. Neither Josiah or I manage a smile this time.
“We could try and go the long way,” Josiah croaks after a while. We only have to look both ways down Teasley to know that there’s very little chance that another route will be any easier to get through. This is the most direct road to the Argyle Fire Station. Maybe the safest, too.
“I say we go on ahead.” I have the revolver in hand and my sights set on the dense tree line beyond the blockade. “It’s, what, two more miles down?”
“Just about.” Josiah sighs and looks back at the skyline over Guyer High School, where the tops of the football goal posts jut toward the sky like the finger bones of a giant. Torn sheets of newspaper and bits of Styrofoam litter the dead grass in front of the stadium. All this waste, and no one to clean it up, except for what few remaining vultures and other predators the Swarm may have left alive.
Josiah looks my way. “Since we’re riding, we should take it slow. I’m worried there might be other people out. People who will take whatever they can get.”
“For sure,” I say, then lower my head. “We can’t be too careful.”
I shove my revolver back into the side pocket of my bag, then tiptoe over the chains linking the car barricade. My shoe slips over one chain. I almost pitch forward. Josiah is there to offer his hand, his bike now resting against the other side of the blockade. I hold up a couple of fingers to wave him off. To tell him that I don’t need his help right now to steady myself.
Once we’re clear of the cars, we mount our bikes again and take off. Thunder does a better job trotting alongside my bike at a decent pace. I let him off his leash to avoid getting us tangled and causing me or Josiah to crash. Thunder is smart enough to never veer too far away. Not even when the woods begin to huddle closer to the two-lane road.
We pass the entrance to the Old Alton Trail less than half a mile down. The gateway to Goatman’s Bridge. A new wind sings through the overgrown wall of trees to our left.
“You believe the stories?” I call out to Josiah, who’s already looking out at the rusted steel girders of the bridge. The beams glint a crimson red in the midday sun. A cold sense of lifeless unease washes over me, even before I sprout goosebumps. The river beneath us is barely moving, and it seems to rush one direction for a few seconds, then swirl the other way the next.
“Some of them.” Josiah clears his throat. “It used to feel creepy, running out there on the trails at night. I’ve only done it once. But as far as the KKK hanging that Black farmer…I wouldn’t put it past this place.”
I smirk. Josiah may be idealistic, but even he isn’t oblivious to the racial tensions and plenitude of homelessness that used to plague North Texas.
He and I are already panting by the time we reach the sharp hill leading up Copper Canyon Road. It’s awkward as hell riding with my bags so full of our stuff, but I’ve got no other choice. I take another gulp of air, this time surprised by its relatively pure taste. The smell of fresh Cedar Elm and raw hay bales is so strong that my chest is warmed by the aromas. I thank the open grassy field to our left for still having plenty of plant life. But it doesn’t quite erase the patchouli and orange hues I’d picked up from Josiah earlier. Those cling to some inner part of me.
God, Rayland. Snap out of it. The hell does having a crush on Josiah do for me now? Nothing, not a single damn thing.
Then I hear them: bird calls from somewhere nearby. Faint chirps that rise and fall, a dialogue by actual living animals. Am I crazy, or do they actually sound like they’re calling out to us?
Thunder stops at complete attention once we crest the hilltop, his ears folding forward. I snap my fingers and whistle at him.
“Now there’s a sound I’ve been missing,” Josiah says with a wispy exhale, holding his hand as a visor over his eyes to study the view of Denton stretching out behind us. I nod and scan the tree line, hoping the birds might just take flight for us.
“No kidding,” I say with a fresh smile. “It gives me hope.”
“For me too,” a low voice calls out.
I jerk my hands back down onto my handlebars and almost flop over. Josiah does the same to stop himself from pitching into the ditch beside him. The voice trails back to a man who steps out from a nearby driveway, his hiking boots crunching on the gravel. Josiah and I whip around, now just a few feet past the stranger, and crane our necks. He’s got on a light waterproof jacket and dark cargo pants. Though his hair’s a bit thin, it’s combed back neatly and slick with faint traces of oil. If not for his greasy hair, he might have passed for a hiker just taking a casual day trip.
In the middle of the day. Alone. With hundreds of Swarm somewhere out there in the woods.
Thunder yaps like crazy at the newcomer, leaping in and out before he races around the dude. The stranger looks down at our dog with faintly amused eyes. I clutch my handlebars until the headset creaks. Shit, my gun’s in my bag.
Then it dawns on me: this guy’s irises are almost pure grey. When he sets them on me, my blood goes cold.
“My name’s Reginald Alteo,” he says with open arms. “I don’t want any trouble. Let’s just talk.”