Refuge

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CHAPTER 29 – Rabbits from a Warren

PETALUMA

SATURDAY

As Jason dashed out the door and down the steps to the back yard behind Emmie and Erin, it was impossible to ignore the screams from out front of those trying to get away on either of the sidewalks or streets that passed the house. Some of them, the older ones especially, must have realized they would not be able to get over the fences and through the shrubbery of the more secretive routes, so they had taken the only way that offered any chance at all. They had gambled, and many lost—possibly self-sacrificed to ensure some of their younger, more able friends might have a better chance. As he listened to people dying, Jason kept telling himself that any attempts at aiding them would be not only futile but also certain to result in his own death and probably Emmie and Erin’s, too. As they ran for the cover of the adjoining back yards to the north, he spotted Nate and Adam heading toward the neighboring yard across the alley west of the Victorian. Others in small groups and alone fled northward, too, but quickly veered off in other directions when promising alternate routes appeared. Before long, Jason, Erin, and Emmie ran alone.

The sun beat down through the brown sky baking the once green and lush area to an ash covered, desert dryness that sucked moisture from their bodies. What little bit of perspiration did manage to accumulate on their skin had the bite of salt in tiny cuts and scrapes—some not so tiny—tolls levied as they charged through hedges and over fences.

With few words, they crept, dashed, and crept again from one back yard to another until they had to stop at an impassable, thorn-filled hedge. To the right was out to exposure in the street the Victorian fronted on. Had any of the aliens remained out front to watch for such a move by any of the fleeing humans and ready to shoot them as they appeared? To the left was the next street west, the one Nate and Adam had been going toward. The street offered the chance to make a fast, ground covering dash away from the screams still punctuating the dying they had fled. But it also presented an open field of view all the way back to the east-west street that ran past the Victorian.

“This way,” Jason whispered as he moved to the west as far as the sidewalk.

They hugged the fronts of the few houses between there and the corner where they rested behind the scorched remains of a huge privet hedge overlooking the intersection. They surveyed the streets in all directions then sprinted across and through the gate into the side yard of the house on the corner. From there, it was a repeat of their initial yard-to-yard scramble.

They filed through one yard and the next one to it on the corner, climbed over the fence and into the yard behind. They crept to the front of that property, checked the street for aliens, and crossed it, too. They slipped from the shadow of a house to the gloom beneath the dome of a huge oak that had managed to elude the fires. A hole in a plank fence led past a finely manicured rose garden and into the shelter of an overgrowth of grapevines on a moss-covered arbor. More than once they glimpsed haggard faces peering curiously at them from darkened interiors of homes they passed, faces that bore the haunting stamp of doom. Sudden and unexpected encounters with occasional corpses could not be anticipated, and it was impossible to ignore the stench while they passed such sites with gazes averted. They continued in this manner, laying down what Jason hoped was a confusing, untraceable trail.

Jason crept slowly out from concealment behind the corner of a dun colored house. Erin and Emmie remained hidden between the wall of the house and a thick mass of shrubbery that separated the dun colored one from the bright blue one next door. He moved out away from the house until he could see up and down the street. With no aliens in view, he moved out to an old pickup parked at the curb. A quick glance inside at the empty ignition switch and he gave up the idea of a quicker getaway. After another careful check in all directions, he motioned for Erin and Emmie to join him.

A couple of blocks up a long slope Jason led them over to the side. “Should be okay here for a bit. We’ve got to rest.”

They sagged onto a patch of grass growing up to the shaded wall of a house beneath a huge pine. After a moment to catch their breaths, they climbed onto the porch, which wrapped around the entire front of the old house and half way down one side, giving them a view of the area. Not that he expected it, but if an alien did venture into the vicinity, Jason wanted to see it before it saw them.

They had gotten out with only the clothes they wore, no food or water, no blanket or jacket to shield them against the chill that normally came with the night even in the middle of summer, and no weapons other than Nate’s knives they each carried at their waists. Covered with sweat and scratches, many bleeding, they lay quietly for a long time, breathing deeply and willing their bodies to recharge. But, then what? Should they just stay there or try to return to the Victorian? Would the aliens be waiting? If not, would anyone else be there? Had anyone else survived? Would they see Nate again? Or Adam? Charlie and Vonnie? Claire? The Judge? The man with no name who sat on the arm of the couch? How many of the screams they had heard were the last sounds of dying friends? How many friends, and others that were no more than familiar faces, had died in those moments of panic?

Jason sat up and was about to suggest they look inside the house for food and water when he spotted movement down the street. Two aliens emerged from between the dun colored and the bright blue house. Then, as his stomach began to churn when he considered the implications, they walked out to pass beside the old, green Ford pickup before heading up the street—exactly the route Jason had led the others.

Without speaking, he dropped to his belly behind the railing then signaled Erin and Emmie to remain low and silent, and to follow him across the porch. They stayed low until they were around the corner and on the north side of the house, out of view of the aliens. They vaulted over the banister to the sloped ground six feet below and landed running. They wound their way through the back yard and over the fence into the one next door, and, again, strove to put as much distance as possible between them and the creatures that had chanced—he hoped—upon their resting place.

In silence, they winced as they pushed their way through tangled branches. The sawn tops of board fences snagged and tore their clothing and scraped skin from hands and bellies as they wormed their way over. Discarded toys and tools in yards tangled their plodding feet and added more bruises and scrapes.

And always, there were corpses of people, dogs, cats, even birds. The stench in the air from the thousands of burned and mutilated bodies, whether concealed or exposed, was almost a visible, solid thing. Even the curls of smoke still twisting up from the shells of houses had to contain particles of what had been living people. But, they couldn’t stop.

In silence, Jason gasped for breath. He was certain the hot air he sucked in had to be desiccating his lungs, rendering them incapable of extracting oxygen from the air. He dared not think of how Emmie and Erin must be suffering, dared not allow himself to be caught in that whirlwind of self-judgment.

Panic seethed just below the surface. He knew if they once gave in to the mortal terror that clawed at them all, and if they let their feet take them in blind abandon, they would either run themselves to death with bursting hearts, or they would run in circles until the horrors behind caught up to them. Either way, they would end their flight as so many others had done—in death.

He fought to keep his wits, forced himself to make conscious efforts to focus on the immediate tasks as well as their ultimate safety. He tried to plan, to choose their route carefully, constantly revising when he would spot some course that might offer a better chance of throwing their pursuers off their trail. His slowly growing familiarity with the town since he joined the department just a few short months earlier was still sorely lacking when it came to the maze of twisting and turning streets of the hilly, west-side neighborhoods. But, when they came out onto Magnolia Avenue, an arterial street he was familiar with and turned west. It could take them out of town, into the fresh, open countryside, away from the congestion of the town and its aura of death. He didn’t know what kind of endurance the aliens had on a long chase. He did know that his and Erin’s and especially Emmie’s stamina was very close to its end. If they were forced into a prolonged foot race out in open country, he knew they would be done in a very short time. But there was a chance they might lose the creatures in the confusion of houses, barns, gullies and trees in the semi-rural area west of town. At least it was a chance—probably better than they could manage in town.

The background hum of a living town had been stilled, with the void filled by the pulsating roar in his ears from his pounding heart and his short, rasping breaths.

The grating, pounding sounds made by his feet on the pavement added their own rhythm to enhance that all-important function of breathing. Breathing had become the most important, all pervading thing in his world. His side throbbed as though from a twisting dagger with each breath. He was afraid. He was hot. His lungs expanded. His feet pounded four times. His lungs released. His feet pounded four times. His lungs expanded. Over and over. Over and over. Forever.

“Daddy!”

With a sharp jab into his chest, that oh-so familiar voice crying out from behind jerked Jason out of his running torpor. Slackening his pace, he glanced over his shoulder and stumbled to a halt.

Emmie lay on the ground nearly fifty feet back. Her sagging head rested on her forearm that lay on the pavement. Her heaving body could do no more than quiver in protest to the searing touch of the sunbaked asphalt. He raced back to his daughter’s side where he joined Erin in her efforts to raise the exhausted child to her feet.

Emmie’s knees had both lost skin in the fall. Her right elbow and the heel of her left hand were scraped raw. Sweat and tears streamed down her contorted face making light streaks in the layers of dust caking her skin. “Can’t...go...more...” her weak voice wheezed out, and she sagged back down.

Erin sat on the hot ground next to Emmie and rocked back and forth as she cradled the fallen girl’s head, and together they silently cried.

Jason fought the dizziness and the nausea that threatened to reduce his tortured body to heaving spasms. He looked back up the road at the aliens still there, close to four blocks away, but still coming on. The humans had outdistanced their pursuers for a while, but they were all nearing the end of their endurance. What felt like running for miles—hours—days, had gotten them only to the edge of town.

He looked back at the loping aliens still coming on strong. To the north, the land rose steeply beneath a shield of huge eucalyptus trees to a crest less than a quarter of a mile away. But it might as well have been in the next state. A shallow ditch lined by an impenetrable mass of blackberry brambles bordered the road on that side. To the south, none of the houses that faced the street offered any escape that the aliens would not easily see them take. Just before the road ahead began a sharp jog to the right, Paula Lane, a side street, went off to the south, but it immediately began a steep ascent that Jason wasn’t sure they could handle. They’d continue west, out of town.

“Help me get her onto my back.” Jason spun about where he squatted. “Quick!”

As he stood, Emmie’s weight almost sent him back to his knees, and he saw in Erin’s frightened look that she expected it to happen. He forced a smile, said, “I can do it. Easy. C’mon,” and began trotting west.

With Erin beside him, they rounded the first bend of the dogleg then veered left around the second bend. But as they rounded the last masking of brush on the left shoulder, they skidded to a halt.

Another alien was standing in the middle of the road several hundred feet ahead and facing straight towards them. When it saw them, it broke into a loping run. They spun and started back the way they had come. Back on the long straightaway they looked east and saw the first aliens still coming, not as close as the new one to the west, but steadily closing.

With only a moment’s hesitation, Jason ran to Paula Lane and began the long, arduous climb. Hunching Emmie’s weight back to the center from where she had slipped to the left, he focused on the strip of asphalt stretching ahead and above him like a stairway to heaven. Refusing to dwell on the searing touch of the laser he expected to burn through his insides at any moment, he kept his eyes ahead where the street crested out of sight. He pushed himself to plod on, pushed one foot after the other as he battled the ever-burdening drag of gravity, pushed away thoughts of the extra weight of his daughter on his back and shoulders.

I can do it...I can do it... Just one more step. Now another one… One more step. I can do it.

The line across the pavement was no more than a quarter of an inch high, just a jagged line of tar filling a crack. But when his toe, barely clearing the ground with each forced step, stubbed it, he and Emmie sprawled onto the rough surface.

Erin was a couple of steps ahead, but she was back at their sides before they finished rolling.

Just ahead, the ground leveled off after the street rolled over the rounded summit. It would have taken only a few more steps before the lane began a long descent down the south side of the hill to intersect with Bodega Avenue at the bottom a quarter mile farther. He had run uphill for nearly half a mile with Emmie on his back.

He reached a hand over to touch Emmie’s tear-stained cheek and gasped, “You hurt?”

With some effort, she forced a smile on her face, but the pain of exhaustion still clouded her eyes. “No, I’m okay. I can go on my own now. You don’t have to carry me anymore. Can you still run?”

“Yeah...have to. Those things are still coming. Now there’s three of ’em.”

Panting hard, Erin said, “Jason, we can’t keep running all day. Sooner or later, one of us is going to twist or break an ankle. Then it will be too late to do anything but just sit and wait to die. We’ve got to do something besides run.”

“But we can’t hide. They can track us into any hiding place we could find. It would have to be something so they can’t track us anymore.”

He kept looking back to see if the aliens were still on their trail, but there was no sign of them. They were far enough over the crest that they could no longer see down the slope. They had quite a lead on the first ones, but the other one had been right on their tail when they had started up the hill.

Humans seemed to be capable of more speed in an all-out run. Perhaps in some circumstances they could also out-endure them. But the tensions and exertions of the past two days, the lack of nutrition from their insufficient intake limited to scare and ever-diminishing supplies, and the horrendous heat were all taking a toll.

He thought how it seemed hotter than normal as he wiped sweat from his eyes. But, what was normal, anymore? How much of a greater acceleration of global warming would there be from all the burning cities pouring even more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere? Of course, there would be no more cars or industry pumping out the stuff, but he didn’t think it would equal out. Not with one side being all of civilization burning. But, could it happen so fast? Was The Judge wrong about an impending nuclear-winter from smoke blocking sunlight? Would the survivors of the Earth holocaust die of freezing or roasting? Maybe these effects would cancel each other out and starvation would get everyone that wasn’t hunted down and lasered.

He half expected to see three grotesque figures rising up from behind the crest of the hill when he looked back that way. When he didn’t, he had to remind himself that the invaders didn’t give up so easily. He couldn’t give in to the urge to just collapse there and breathe and wait for the rubber in his legs to solidify again to solid bone.

They helped each other to their feet and set off at a fast walk on over the crest. Charred and gutted houses lined both sides of the road. The hills beyond the houses along the west side of the street were open ranch land and hay fields striped by bands of eucalyptus groves, and dotted with homes, barns, and chicken coops. But, now looking at the area, he realized they offered few hiding places, and nothing through which the aliens could not follow. If the aliens did follow them out of town, they would be condemned to run until they dropped. To the east, the hill over which the lane ran fell away to shallow vales and more hills covered with the sprawl of west Petaluma.

They had gone only a couple hundred feet when Erin cried out, “Look!”

She pointed at a car, an open Jeep, that was unburned, un-wrecked and parked at the side of the road a short distance down a side street like a gift from the gods. West Street curved gently as it went down the hill back into town until it was out of view after a block. But Jason was familiar with the street and knew it continued downhill for another four or five blocks before turning uphill again. “Great,” he said. “Now, if only they left the key....”

When Erin reached it, she threw herself into the driver’s seat and searched frantically for the key stuck into the ignition switch. I wasn’t there. After slamming her frustration against the steering wheel a couple of times, she paused for a moment then gripped the wheel and jerked it back and forth a couple of times.

The Jeep was an old one, a lot like the old hunting Jeep her dad had back when she was just a teenager and Shannon was still counting her age in single digits. Her dad’s jeep had been built back when things like locking steering wheels weren’t options even in expensive cars.

She flopped over onto the seat and leaned beneath the dash. Reaching behind it, she ripped loose a couple of wires and, after checking briefly behind the dash again, began touching one wire to the back of the ignition switch. Jason had no more than pulled his feet into the passenger side when the engine made a slow groan before emitting several dull clicks.

“Damn!” Erin said, just then noticing the mechanical gas gauge. “Battery’s too low, and the tank’s empty, anyway.” Nodding her head, she breathed deep a couple of times to flush out the absurd idea that someone had left it there just to tease her. Then, nodding her head as she gazed at the long hill before them, she muttered, “It’s okay—it’s okay. It’ll still work.” Then, louder, “Come on, push!”

Jason heaved himself back out and got a double-handed grip on the forward edge of the open door-frame on the right side. Emmie scrambled over the side and into the back seat as Erin slipped the transmission into neutral and released the parking brake. When the lightweight vehicle began rolling forward, Jason leaned into it for a few steps then vaulted over the side and back into the front passenger seat.

“And just how’d you learn to do that?” Jason asked with a cocked eyebrow as he grinned sideways at Erin.

Without taking too much of her attention from the long slope of the curving road ahead, she glanced back at him with a grin and said, “You learn lots of stuff growing up on a farm.”

The Jeep quickly gained speed on its free-wheeling run, and when it hit twenty miles per hour, Erin began applying the brake pedal just enough to hold it there. She had their getaway car under almost full control. The only thing lacking was the ability to climb the next hill if it was more than a short block and not too steep. At fork intersection near the bottom, Jason told her go right. It took them uphill again, but it wasn’t as steep as the other option. The Jeep soon coasted to a stop. They abandoned it after a couple hundred feet.

Their short ride gave them a chance to catch their breaths, but they were on foot, again. Jason led them on up a couple of blocks to Oak Hill Park. A street on the other side of the park dropped them down to Bodega Avenue half a mile closer to downtown than where they would have struck it from Paula Lane if they hadn’t found the Jeep. To the right, the road continued straight west out of town to eventually join the Coastal Highway several miles north of Point Reyes. To the left, it went back into town where it became Washington Street.

With no aliens chasing them, toward the coast seemed the wisest course. But before they had gone half a block, they spotted an alien up ahead. It was just loitering at the side of the road half a mile out beyond the edge of town, probably close to Paula Lane. If they had kept going that way, they would have run right into it. It acted like it saw them about the time they saw it, but instead of coming after them, it merely gazed in their direction until they turned back into town. At the first side street they turned south.

After two blocks, they turned west onto Western Avenue still intent on avoiding the downtown area, and maybe even making it out of town. Like Washington, which became Bodega Avenue, Western Avenue came from the heart of downtown in a straight line to the western edge of town where it curved in its ascent over the first ripple of hills and low mountains between the town and the coast.

Again, opting for the maze of hills and ranch land, many with coverings of dense woodlands, Jason headed towards the safety in those rural hills. But they hadn’t even gotten away from the intersection when a pair of aliens appeared ahead in the distance, like the one on Bodega, just loitering about at the edge of town. Jason ducked and urged the others on across Western. After another block to the south, they crouched for cover, exhausted, beside a truck parked at a dairy processing plant tucked in among a maze of older homes.

Jason peered around the corner and back up to Bodega Avenue. There was no way of knowing if the aliens that had hounded them from the Victorian were still on their trail. There was a chance that in their brief toboggan ride in the Jeep, they had avoided leaving invisible shoeprints, scents or whatever it was the aliens could track. With hearts pounding, they relished another chance to catch their breaths.

After a couple of minutes, Emmie said, “...so tired... Can’t go on... So hot...”

Jason caressed her flushed cheek. “I know, sweetheart, I know. Me too. We’ll take five here, but we’ve got to keep going, just for a little more. We’ll find a place to rest soon. I promise.”

After a couple of minutes, he turned to Erin who sat on her haunches and held herself from falling over by holding onto the truck’s tire. Her head tilted back, and her eyes were closed. Pain showed in the lines that creased her face. “Can you make it just a little farther, Erin? ...Erin? You with me?”

Her eyes opened to peer up at the sooty, grayish brown sky. In normal days, it would have been blue, perhaps with a random scattering of puffy, white clouds. Against such a background might be gulls screeching and wheeling about. Flocks of pigeons would be performing their choreography across the sky. Sparrows and finches would be darting like bobbing arrows from one point to another. Crows, hawks and vultures would be soaring with aggressive starlings diving at their tail feathers. Would the skies of Earth ever again relish in the flight of birds? Too exhausted to make a verbal response, she made a single nod.

“Okay,” Jason’s voice rasped as he rose from his crouch. “That way.”

They cut through the creamery to an east-west running English Street, and then scurried on across it when they spotted an alien checking a house half a block west. They passed between houses and sheds, garages and greenhouses, some burned and others not. They stumbled over fallen pieces of collapsed walls and broken wedges of concrete. They crawled through holes in fences and over fences still whole. Tall grass tugged at their leaded feet as they slogged their way through un-tracked back yards and empty lots.

They turned east on Bassett Street when they spotted two aliens cross the street two blocks in the other direction. After another block they passed the complex that included city hall and the police department in its cramped facilities. The buildings still stood, but only as shells, and offered little in the way of a secure place in which to hole up.

But they had to find a hole, a haven. He really didn’t know what to look for, or even if what they sought existed. All he could hope was that they would find it soon, and that they would recognize it when they did. It was this thread of hope that allowed him to drive himself as well as Emmie and Erin in the sweltering heat. Somewhere there must be safety...alyssum...refuge.

At the end of the block, the street ended at Howard Street and a small, triangular park in front of the ruins of a large church. Left on Howard on the near side of the church and park, or on Liberty Street on the far side, would take them back to Western Avenue north of the church and back to the edge of the downtown area, a place he wanted to avoid. With a nod of his head, Jason indicated the direction to the right toward the south end of the park where Howard and Liberty Street merged and an area beyond of some intact houses among expanses of destroyed ones. But, weary for rest, they veered toward the park. As they dragged themselves over to the shade of the only unburned tree in the park, a tall redwood with a trunk that divided several feet above the ground, a voice called out.

Erin looked up at the sound. It had come from the left and ahead, from somewhere on the other side of the little park.

Emmie took a couple of steps farther before she realized Erin had stopped, and she stopped.

Jason looked across the park’s open space at a man pointing at them from the shadows beneath a front porch roof of a stuccoed house. Another man came out of the house to join him.

Erin didn’t recognize him until the second man came out. Then it struck her, submerging her like an unstoppable wave crashing against the shore, and the horrors of that first night flooded back over her. She sucked in air in a hard gasp before spewing it out one word.

“Vince!”

PART IV – REFUGE

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