Refuge

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CHAPTER 12 – Night of Horror

GOLDEN GATE NRA

WEDNESDAY

Emmie crawled over a wooden beam charred black. She grimaced at the smear of greasy feeling charcoal, still almost too warm to touch, across her bare belly as she reached for the blackened stud blocking her goal. After this last barrier thudded to the floor in a cloud of swirling ash, she reached past the jagged edges of the broken glass in the vending machine display window and grasped the remnants of the only product visible, a candy bar in scorched paper. It was nothing but a melted glob that ran through seams of the paper when she disturbed it.

She laid down her shirt bundle and, shifting her position some, grasped the edge of the machine door and yanked, but, of course, it was locked. Glancing about, she scrambled over to some scorched metal shelving against a nearby wall with a store of one-inch diameter metal pipes of varying lengths. She picked out a four-footer and made her way back to the vending machine. She inserted one end into a vending slot in the space behind the broken glass, and then jammed and pried, leaning into the leverage until the mechanism popped open with a metallic screech.

Discarding the pipe, she rummaged through the dark interior as well as she could in the limited light of the gutted building interior. Finally, once sure of what she was seeing and feeling, and ignoring all the melted candy bars, she pulled out bags of nuts, three kinds of granola bars, and several rolls of Lifesavers. She opened her shirt bundle on the relatively clear floor space beneath a nearby table and added her new find to three small bags of trail mix and a six-pack of orange soda with only one can missing she had salvaged from a desk in the office before expanding her search.

Since it was a normal work day at the warehouse, it had been a simple matter of opening the office door and walking in. None of the people employed there were around to stop or question her, so she had helped herself. The door into the warehouse from the office was blocked by the partially collapsed roof, so she continued her search around the back where a line of windows made it easy for her to make guesses of what was inside. She found nothing that seemed worthwhile until she spotted the vending machine. A dead woman on the ground below the window, and especially three semi-aggressive gulls almost deterred her, but she had gritted her teeth and climbed in.

Satisfied, now, that she had collected everything worth taking, she wrapped the sleeves around and retied it into a bundle. After one last look about to be sure she hadn’t missed anything, she began the intricate task of threading herself back through the labyrinth of exposed, burned wall studs and collapsed ceiling and roof debris to where she had come in.

The seagulls squawked and flared their wings in threatening gestures before taking flight, abandoning their claim to the scorched and bloody body of a woman.

She reached to the side and dropped her findings to the ground, making sure she could see daylight between it and any part of the woman’s body. Then she crawled out, again stretching her legs to avoid touching the gory obstacle and found solid footing beyond it. Somehow, she managed to avoid looking at it this time. Holding her shirt-bound booty over her shoulder, with her other hand she picked up a scorched blanket probably deposited on the remains of a broken crate by the explosion, glanced again at the glistening white birds, and walked away.

“Dirty, filthy birds,” she muttered. “You’ll eat anything, just anything at all. Well, you’ve seen the last time I’m gonna sit around and toss you bread crusts and even half a sandwich. Who woulda thought they’re nothing but a bunch of white vultures?”

As she walked back around the corner of the ruined building and out toward the shore of the lagoon across the road, she spotted several more gulls striding back and forth only a few feet from where her father lay. Without missing a step, she switched the blanket to her other hand with the loot and reached down to scoop up three golf-ball-sized stones.

Don’t know if he’s dead or not, do you? Go ahead, get a little bit closer. But be careful; he just might reach out and twist your heads around a few times.

When she was within a hundred feet, and taking care not to hit her father, she heaved the stones one after another at the seaside scavengers until they, too, took to the air squawking their protests.

Jason rolled over, waved at her without rising and said, “Easy, honey. They’re just birds. They’re not hurting anything.”

She kept her eyes on the gulls that were soon fighting among themselves over the choicest tidbits of a new find some distance away. “Well, they were sure thinking about it.”

Jason let it ride. He wouldn’t get into Mother Nature’s ways with his daughter who, in the last few hours, had suffered through quite enough of the Mother’s nature in the behavior of Her more advanced creatures.

Jason examined the tatters and burns of the blanket she dropped beside him. “This’ll feel mighty good tonight. Anything else?”

“Some.” She sat beside him and dumped out her find from the makeshift carryall. Turning her back to her father, she re-donned the shirt, and then turned back to watch him pick through the bags, bars and cans while she tucked in her shirttail.

“These are Great! They’ll—” Jason had raised partway up onto one elbow but quickly eased himself back down to the horizontal with his eyes closed and his hands holding his throbbing head.

“Does it hurt bad?”

Not wanting to alarm her further, he took a moment to answer. “It’ll do. I just got a little dizzy there for a moment. I guess my brain is still rattling around inside my skull. But don’t worry. I’ve been beaned before. All I need is a few hours rest and I’ll be fine.”

“But, what if you’re not? What if you need to go to the hospital? What if we can’t even find a doctor? What if—?”

“Whoa, slow down, now, hon. I’m pretty sure it’s nothing that serious. Like I said, I’ve been conked before—worse than this. Look, we’ll just hang around here ’til tomorrow morning, and by that time I’ll be all better.”

“Okay. But you’d better be.”

She sat down beside him and wrapped her arms around him. Then, easing his head into her lap, she softly caressed his forehead, careful to stay clear of the ugly laceration above his ear. The bleeding had slowed to seepage shortly after she had helped him across the road right after the explosion, and she had cleaned off most of the congealed blood with his handkerchief dipped in the water of the lagoon.

It could have been from a flying piece of pipe or wooden stud or broken bottle or even a piece of the exploding propane tank. Whatever it was, he didn’t want to dwell on the amount of luck he had been allotted to survive it.

“Daddy?”

“Hmm?”

“What are we going to do?”

A simple question, but Jason mind fumbled for a simple answer. How could he possibly decide such a thing with the world crumbling before their very eyes? So, he answered, “Not sure. I suppose we’d better think of something.”

“We can’t go back to the highway, can we?”

He almost shook his head but caught himself. “Nuh uh.”

After a long pause, Emmie looked out across the water at the east end of the lagoon toward still smoking ruins of the Visitor’s Center and others beyond it. Some still supported patches of flames. Some, their limited fuel already consumed in the hours since the attack merely sent up tendrils of smoke. She said, “I don’t want to stay here.”

He looked up into her eyes. Long dried tears had left their tracks down the delicate, clear skin of her usually rosy cheeks, now dull and ashen with layers of soot and grime. Her lovely, long hair hung in rattails, its luster and curl long gone.

It took all he had to calm his breaking heart. “No, we don’t want to do that. You up to doing much walking?”

Her fingers continued to trace small circles on his throbbing temples. “I... I guess. ...I think so. Yeah, I can walk...I guess....”

Jason reached up and grasped her other hand in his. He said, “But that’s not until tomorrow. We’re both exhausted, and I need to let my head clear. Right now, we’re going to find a cozy, little spot where we can spend the night…maybe there inside the office. We’ve got the food and drinks you found. Tomorrow, we’ll start walking. We’ll go north...over those hills. There’s probably trails all over up there, so it shouldn’t be too rough going. And we’ll take it nice and slow. Maybe we’ll even find some more food. I’m not sure how far we’ll have to walk, but it can’t be that far. I know there’s a highway a little bit north of here that goes right up along the coast for miles and miles. It shouldn’t be very far to that. There’s some small towns up and down the coast, too. We should find some place where we can get food and shelter by tomorrow night. What do you think? Sound okay to you? ...Huh? ...Emmie?”

Her feathery caresses had stopped. He opened his eyes and looked up into her face, now so peaceful in sleep, still sitting but slumped forward. Fighting nausea and working through the hammer-like throbs of his pulse, he lifted his head and squirmed around enough to cuddle her into his arms. He kissed her forehead and gazed out across the lagoon. For a short while, the horrors of the day seemed unreal and far away. To the distant sounds of waves pounding into surf beyond the strip of sand at the west end of the lagoon, he watched the setting sun melt into the horizon. He could almost forget the nightmare of pain and death witnessed in the past few hours. Then Emmie stirred and whimpered at the touch of a chilly breeze off the ocean, and his contentment vanished.

He roused her with a gentle shake. Then, moving ten or fifteen feet at a time while remaining hunched over to avoid nausea as much as possible, and even then, stopping three times to kneel until it passed enough to continue, he hobbled back across the road to the small office at the end of the gutted warehouse. They decided on the floor space beneath the desk in which to curl up for the night. Maybe they could better retain some of their body heat in the tight space. Huddling as closely together as they could, he draped the sooty blanket over them and curled his body around hers. Even inside the building and out of the constant wind, it looked to be a long, cold night.


MUIR BEACH

Tears were never far away in the exchanges between Erin and the other two prisoners, frequently brought about pauses for abraded nervous systems to settle back down.

Daylight was long gone, and the chill of night had little difficulty penetrating the sheet metal walls of the shed. The three young women huddled close for shared warmth, and time passed with whispered talks and periods of silence marred by sobs.

Erin had been dozing in a fitful-dreaming semi-sleep when she startled awake to the scrape of the sliding doors and the harsh light of a flashlight. She glared into the light and debated with herself if she should initiate the battle right then, attack before he could prepare. Of course, he could be standing there ready to deal the killing blow and merely waiting for her to rise. Or, she could wait, rise and follow their commands until she could evaluate the situation, then attack. Either way, she’d probably die shortly thereafter. She didn’t even know if this was Carl come to fetch her or if Vic had made the journey himself, not willing to take a chance that Carl might have to kill her en route. She waited.

The light passed by her. It came to rest on Rachel, and the girl quailed with terror. But, the intense portion of the light beam didn’t linger more than a few moments on the terrified features of her young face. The light passed on to Crissy just as something hit the floor in front of her with a light metallic thud. It was a length of small chain with small twisted links like would be used to keep a dog in an unfenced yard. A large collar was attached to one end. A voice, not Vic or Carl’s, said, “Put that around your neck.” It was Vince.

“Look, Vince,” Crissy’s voice quivered. “Whatever we thought we had going back at Mill Valley—it’s over. If you don’t mind, I’d just as soon stay here.”

His voice was tight. “Did that sound like an invitation? I’m not asking. I don’t ask anymore—for anything. You tried to leave me, to just run out on me, abandon me. Never again!” In the reflected light of his flashlight, the bottomless pits that were his eyes turned slowly to peer deeply into Rachel’s until she had to turn her own gaze downward. He went on, “No one—no one—is going to leave me ever again. Not alive. You made a mistake, Crissy, and you need to be punished. Get up.”

He leaned on a found cane while the flashlight in his other hand played its beam back over to Rachel’s rigid face. It stayed there until Crissy rose to her feet and, in small, shuffling steps, edged forward.

She stood shaking as Vince reached out and picked up the chain hanging from her neck. He slipped the other end, a leather loop, over his free hand and looped the extra chain to take up extra slack. Then he stepped backwards out the door. Crissy stood there until the chain tightened, then quivered with the gentlest of tugs. She looked around at Erin…at Rachel. The hopeless look of the condemned haunted her eyes. She opened her mouth so speak, but the leash quivered again. Her eyes pleaded for help, but she and the others knew there was no help.

That look of terror was the last Erin ever saw of her. But, she was certain the girl’s screams would stay with her forever.

For nearly an hour, Erin and Rachel huddled together, flinching whenever another sudden onset of a new series of screams after a pause of perhaps several minutes. They often hummed tunelessly to themselves to try to drown out the horrid sounds.

But, then, just when another scream threatened to drive them, too, to uncontrollable shrieking, another sound intruded. Under other circumstances, such a sound might have evoked other images of horror. But this time, with its aftermath being a total absence of further screams or any other indications of Crissy’s suffering, it was as though the sound of the two gunshots, just two little pops spaced by maybe a second that marked the cessation of screams with the finality of a headman’s axe, had come from heaven.

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