Earth’s Survivors is copyright © 2016 Dell Sweet. All rights foreign and domestic reserved in their entirety.
Cover Art © Copyright 2016 Wendell Sweet
Some text copyright 2010, 2014, 2015 Wendell Sweet
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This is a work of fiction. Any names, characters, places or incidents depicted are products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual living persons places, situations or events is purely coincidental.
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Mexico NY: Joel and Haley
Joel had been able to pick up speed once they had left Mexico. The pavement was fairly even, but after the first three or four miles the traffic began to block the highway and they were down to a slow crawl. He could go no faster than ten miles per hour. There were several blind hills, and curves, and there were a lot of abandoned cars and trucks that seemed to be in the least likely places.
The four wheel drive had come in handy, as several times they had to go over the road and into a field, or someone’s yard to get around it. As evening fell they drove partway up the side of a concrete bridge escarpment and set up a camp. They were protected by the trucks, yet high enough to see in all directions.
NYS Route 104: Joel and Haley
By the time they reached the outskirts of Oswego the next day, they were ready to stop and rest. John pointed out a large shopping center on their left, and Joel pulled into the mostly empty parking lot and rolled up to the front doors of a large department store. “Thrifty Deal?” he asked John.
“Chain store,” John replied. “You can find a little of everything.”
The other two Jeeps pulled in behind them as they were getting out. Joel walked up to the front doors and tried to open them. “Locked,” he said.
“That’s okay,” Glenn smiled, reaching back into the Jeep. “I’ve got the key.” He handed the jack handle in his hand to Joel as he walked up to the glass doors.
“Well,” Joel said, “I guess here goes.” He swung the jack handle at the door and the glass shattered into millions of green-tinted crystals that skittered across the pavement.
“It’s my first real crime,” Joel said, turning around with a large grin on his face.
Just then a loud alarm began to whoop from within the store, and a split second later an even louder alarm, mounted in a steel box above the doors, began to bray into the quiet afternoon air. Joel, along with almost everyone else, had turned and began to run back towards the Jeep when it went off. The jack handle clattered to the pavement.
“Holy shit,” he sputtered.
Haley was doubled over laughing, leaning up against the Jeep for support. Joel looked at her stupidly for a few seconds and then smiled. Most of the others began to laugh as well, breaking the tension the alarm had caused.
“Y-Y-You,” she tried to say, but couldn’t stop laughing. “I thought you were going to have a heart attack, Joel,” she said, once she had gained some control. She held her stomach and began to laugh again. Joel began to laugh himself, along with everyone else.
“Well… it scared me at first,” he protested. He hadn’t been the only one, he knew. Glenn’s eyes had looked as though they were going to pop right out of his head, he recalled. He seemed to be all right now though.
Glenn walked forward and picked up the tire iron from the pavement. Standing on tip toe he pried the metal box open. He hit the large siren inside with the jack handle, until it finally screeched and then quit. The other alarm inside was still going off. He disappeared into the store, and a few seconds later that one stopped too. Glenn came back outside and peered sheepishly at the small crowd, most of whom had finally stopped laughing.
“If we’re gonna do this on a regular basis,” he said, “we better pick up some real burglar tools while we’re here.” Everyone laughed again, but the laughter died down quickly, and once it had they all crunched across the glass and into the store.
The power was off, it turned out. The alarm had been backed up by battery, and had apparently switched over automatically when the power went off. The mood changed once they had gotten into the store. Just the fact that no one did come when the alarm had gone off would have been enough, but the empty store had also contributed its share to their somber mood. It served as a reminder that they still had met no other people at all. They had traveled over seventy miles and seen no one, and it reinforced what had happened in all their minds. No cashiers at the empty checkouts, no police cars screaming into the parking lot to see who was breaking in, there was nobody, anywhere, it seemed.
Although the power was off, the water was not, and they availed themselves of the employee showers after they had quickly moved through the store and picked out what they needed. They had gone together through the deserted aisles of the store, unwilling, or unable, to split up.
Joel, his hair still wet from the cold shower; dressed in a faded pair of jeans and a blue chambray work shirt, leaned up against the wall outside the rest room with the other men, and waited for the women to come back out. They talked quietly among themselves as they waited.
“You think Rochester will be the same as here?” Dave asked. He had seemed especially shaken by the alarm in the parking lot, and still seemed shook up over it.
Terry stood silently next to Glenn, tapping the heel of one work boot against the cinder block wall. “It does sort of seem like everyone is gone,” he said, as he stopped tapping the boot heel and straightened up.
“Could be,” Glenn said, solemnly. “It really could be, but I don’t think so. I think there are probably people right here in Oswego. They’re scared, is all. I can’t say as I blame them either, they don’t know any more about what’s going on than we do. Even if they saw us come in, I don’t think they’re about to come running up to say howdy. I wouldn’t,” he paused, before continuing. “If I saw a bunch of people come driving in, I’d probably want to stay away. No police means there is no protection, and they don’t know who we are, or even where we came from, or what we want for that matter. I think though, that there are people. Maybe it’s just going to take some time before we all get back together. I just can’t believe we’re it, I guess.”
“I have to agree with you, Glenn,” John said. “If we were to stay here a while, I would bet we would probably see someone. The curiosity would bring them out, I think.”
“I agree,” Joel said. “I was none too keen on approaching you guy’s back in Watertown either. I thought about avoiding you, as a matter of fact, just going in the other direction.”
“Glad you didn’t, Joel,” Glenn said. The other men nodded agreement as he spoke. “I can see though where a body wouldn’t want to. Especially since there was more than a few of us carrying guns, or rifles, at that point. I am glad you did though. I sure as hell wouldn’t have wanted to end up with that Brad Saser trying to take charge. He was already pushing it pretty hard. Probably would have shot him myself if he had tried, who in hell knows what a guy like him would do.”
“You don’t think they’ll follow us do you?” Terry asked.
“No telling,” Glenn said, “but I wouldn’t doubt it. Guy’s like him are all over though, and I suppose we’ll run into a few just like him eventually. Not much we can do except to be careful, I guess.”
“Think we’ll make Rochester tomorrow?” Dave, asked, as Gina and Jan came walking out of the rest room.
“It’s not far, only about another sixty, maybe seventy miles,” John answered, “but I doubt it. We will probably get there tomorrow or the next day sometime, depending on the stalled traffic of course.” He seemed to consider for a second. “Maybe longer. The stalled traffic is even heavier and it might be ten times worse than this once we get closer. I mean they may have also taken to the secondary roads, so there may not be any real way to get there in one straight shot anymore.”
“That’s about what I figure,” Glenn chipped in, “at least a few days.”
Haley and Lilly opened the door and walked out, and the small group prepared to make a meal and settle down for the night.
Everyone, at Glenn’s suggestion, had changed into sneakers or boots in case they ended up walking. They had taken the time to pick up extra clothes, as well as some more canned goods to replace what they had eaten, and Joel had found some Quick Cold in one of the side aisles.
Quick Cold had only become popular in the last couple of years as a retail item. Before that it had only been used by the medical profession, to transport anything that needed to stay cold, or frozen. Organs for transplant, fresh blood, and countless other things. The plastic bags contained a small stick shaped tube. Joel had filled three large coolers with soda and beer, and tossed in several of the bags after snapping the small cylinder within, to activate the chemical the bags contained. They had instantly frosted up and began to cool the warm cans. A few minutes later they rolled the trucks inside the store and built a fire for the night. Joel took the first shift of guard duty with Scott. Just inside the main entrance.
Oswego NY: Joel and Haley
They spent the morning scouring the store for useful items. After they had loaded the Jeeps, they had left the abandoned shopping center and began to work their way through the seemingly empty city, when they reached the first bridge they were forced to stop.
The bridge was still standing, that was not the problem. The problem was that it was packed bumper to bumper with wrecked and burned out cars and trucks. A large city bus also sat within the wreckage. Dave and Joel scrambled over the cars to see what had caused the huge accident.
At first it seemed that the wreckage went on forever. But as they neared the second bridge the problem became apparent.
The bridge, or more properly put, the twisted steel girders and huge chunks of concrete that had been the bridge, lay at the bottom of a deep gorge, partially submerged in the water. Reluctantly they scrambled back over the cars to tell the others that were waiting.
“Think we could move them?” John asked, as Joel and Dave returned. “I saw a wrecker back up the highway a bit; we could go back and get it.”
“Wouldn’t do any good,” Joel said his voice somber. “The second bridge is nearly gone. Even if it weren’t, I don’t see this one standing much longer either. We took a look at the underside from the other bridge, and a couple of the pilings are cracked pretty badly. I wouldn’t trust it. There is another bridge though, looks like only a couple of blocks over. It’s still up, but I can’t tell from here whether it has traffic on it, the sides are enclosed.”
“Which way, Joel?” Glenn asked.
“Looked like down a little way,” Joel said, pointing back the way they had come. “Take the next right, and it should be only a couple of blocks away.”
“Well,” Haley said, trying to sound positive, “let’s go find out.”
They piled back into the Jeeps, and after some careful maneuvering, managed to turn them around and head back the way they had come. Joel made the next right and started down the street, while Glenn and John, as well as Haley, watched for a bridge on the side Streets that bisected the one they were on. Joel had just slowed to cross a set of rail road tracks, when Haley suddenly yelled out.
“There!” she shouted, pointing down the tracks.
Joel looked in the direction she had pointed, which happened to be down the tracks.
“Shit, that figures,” he said, “a rail road trestle.”
The trestle was a newer one, and the sides were enclosed steel with concrete reinforcements. Probably why I didn’t realize it was a train trestle, he thought, and then said aloud. “Well that blows that, but there ought to be other bridges. This can’t be the only one.”
“Actually,” Glenn said, from behind him, “it ain’t necessarily bad news.”
“What do you mean?” Joel said, staring back down the tracks at the bridge.
“Well, just what I said. It’s still a bridge ain’t it? It’s not a rickety old wooden one either, solid steel and concrete, it’ll hold us, and it does cross the river right?”
Joel looked at the bridge doubtfully. “I suppose so, but… You think we could fit across it?”
“I’ve seen cars and trucks both on trains,” Haley exclaimed, “they would have to fit, or else how could they carry them on the trains without smashing the hell out of them?”
“Good point,” Glenn said, “how about you park this buggy, Joel, and we go take a look at the bridge.”
The other two Jeeps parked, and all of them walked off down the tracks to look the bridge over.
The wooden ties, and the tracks that lay upon them, were well supported. Heavy steel girders ran the length of the bridge, and were supported by massive concrete pilings sunk into the river bed far below. Joel peered down through the ties at the concrete. It was cracked in a few places, but all the pilings seemed still to be firmly anchored in the river bed. “Do you really think it would hold us?” he asked.
“If it will hold a train, Joel, it will hold us,” Glenn replied.
“I mean the cracks, wise ass,” Joel said. “The pilings are cracked. They seem to still be solid, but… I don’t know,” he finished lamely.
“Tell you what. You drive one, and John and I will drive the other two. Everybody else can walk across. I’ll go first even. If it looks the least bit shaky we call it off, and search for something else, okay?” Glenn argued.
Joel thought for a moment before he replied. It might be a good idea after all. Where else were they likely to find a bridge that wasn’t blocked off with traffic? The bridge did seem solid, and it couldn’t hurt to try he supposed.
“Okay, but I’ll start out. You watch, and you damn well better let me know real quick if she starts to go. I’ll be pretty pissed if you dump me and my new truck in the river,” Joel finished, smiling widely.
“Wouldn’t think of it,” Glenn said, solemnly.
“See you on the other side,” Haley said, and before Joel could reply she quickly kissed him. “For luck,” she said, a bit breathless. She turned and along with the others started walking across the bridge.
Joel watched her go. The kiss had taken him by surprise.
“Ah, Joel,” Glenn said grinning, “better close your mouth before the bugs start flying in.” Joel closed his mouth with a snap, and looking a bit embarrassed, walked off towards the Jeep.
John threw Glenn a wink, and they both walked out onto the bridge to wait. Joel started the Jeep, backed around, and drove slowly over the ties towards the bridge, straddling the rails as he went, and he was still thinking of the kiss as he edged slowly out onto the bridge. He looked across and saw Haley waving from the other side. He waved back and then brought his attention back to the truck.
“How’s she look, Glenn,” he asked out the open window, as he inched cautiously out onto the trestle.
“You might scratch the paint a little, but the deck didn’t budge a bit when you eased on to her,” Glenn replied. “I don’t think they brought too many auto-carriers across this deck though, more like freight cars. You only got a couple of inches on either side.”
“Well here goes nothing,” he muttered under his breath as he moved further out onto the bridge. “Still okay?” he asked.
“Good as gold,” Glenn replied. Joel was not entirely blocking the bridge, and Glenn and John squeezed by on one side of the truck. “We’ll be behind you,” Glenn said, as he paused at Joel’s window. “I’ll wait until you’re off, and John will wait until I’m off.” Glenn looked at both men as they nodded their heads.
“Let’s do it,” Joel said.
He eased off the gas and let the Jeep idle its way across the bridge. When he reached the other side he angled off the tracks, parked, and walked back to the bridge. He stood quietly beside Haley and watched until the other two Jeeps were across. As he stood next to her, he noticed how much more aware of her he was. Funny what a little kiss can do, he thought. In fact, he noticed, she seemed to be a little flushed, and with that thought, Joel began to wonder just exactly what the kiss had meant.
Oswego NY: Joel and Haley
Once they were back on the main road again, it was late afternoon, and by the time they finally reached the other side of Oswego, they had all agreed to stop for the day.
As they entered the small town of Martville, and pulled into a large field, Joel found himself wondering more and more what the kiss had meant.
They made a half-way decent meal out of the canned goods they carried with them, and once they tired of rehashing the day’s events, one by one they went off to find a place to sleep. They had sleeping bags, and rather than set up the tents they had also brought with them, they all agreed they would rather use the bags.
Joel watched as Terry walked off in one direction with Gina. Obviously something had sparked with those two, he thought. He sat talking quietly with Glenn and John, as well as Haley. When he finally said his goodnights, a few hours later, Haley got up, and saying goodnight, walked away by herself.
While Joel waited for sleep to come, he found that instead of thinking of all the bad things that had happened, he was thinking of Haley, and all the good things that could happen.
Route 104: Joel and Haley
The next morning they were on the road early. The going was still slow, but by noon they were on the outskirts of Alton, a small town about forty miles from Rochester. They were only thirty or so miles from Webster where they would turn off 104, and take route 250 into the small village of Fairport.
A run-down general store, with two old gas pumps sitting on a chipped concrete island, was all that marked the small town. The low speeds and constant use of the four wheel drive, had taken a toll on the fuel tanks of all three vehicles, so when Joel had spotted the small store as they passed a sign for the township limits; they had pulled off into the dirt parking area. The other two Jeeps followed him in and lined up by the pumps.
When Haley and Terry, along with Gina, had first picked up the jeeps, they had filled the tanks by siphoning gas from the dealership’s underground tanks. It had been a fairly easy process as Terry had worked at a gas station before, and had been responsible for, among other things, checking the levels of the tanks and comparing them on a daily basis to the numbers on the pumps to make sure they matched up. He had known where to look for them. The tanks were fairly simple to access. A long piece of hose slipped down into the tank had been adequate to siphon the gas into cans and then fill the Jeeps.
Terry had found a hand operated pump, mainly used to pump kerosene from cans into small heaters, at the department store back in Oswego, and, along with Dave, had adapted the crank operated pump to use it to pump gasoline. The adaptation had been simple. A long section of heavy hose had been slipped over the pumps short tube, and held in place with a small hose clamp.
One by one the Jeeps were pulled over next to the underground tanks, and quickly filled. Haley had been impressed with the idea. It was a lot better than the mouthfuls of gas they had swallowed filling the Jeeps back in Watertown.
After the Jeeps were gassed up they decided to take a short break and eat lunch. They were all getting sick of the canned meat, so they foraged through the small general store to see what was available. Once each had found what they wanted, they had carried it out onto the wide front deck to eat.
Joel sipped at a cold beer while he sat in an old wooden chair eating a large bag of chips. Glenn and John were talking quietly beside him.
“Where do you think the best place to go is?” Glenn asked of John. They had been discussing several places where people may have gathered. They were all hoping to find other people once they arrived in Rochester, but until now they had not discussed where to go once they arrived.
John answered. “Well, the compass is open. I think it would be a good idea to stay away from the North side though. The whole area has been run down for years, and I’m not so sure we’d want to meet anyone who was still alive in there.”
“That bad, huh?” Joel asked.
“Actually, more than that bad,” he replied. “When I was still living there, and still on the City Council, I remember we had constant problems there. The city was always being accused of not caring much about the north side, and to be honest it was based in fact to a certain extent. The city and the council, me included I hate to admit, did let it run down pretty much. Trouble was, when we tried to retake the neighborhoods we couldn’t.”
“Why?” Glenn asked. “Didn’t you have support from the neighborhoods?”
“Not really,” John said. “Don’t get me wrong. There were still a lot of good people trying to live there, but by the time the city stepped in, drugs had pretty much taken over. It got so the police couldn’t even go in there after dark. The drug dealers knew it and used it to their advantage. After a while… well, the good people who had tried to change things just left. The last time I was there, on Clifford Avenue, it was pretty bad. We, myself, and two other board members, decided to take a tour through some neighborhoods ourselves, to see just how bad it had gotten. We had to have a police escort, and even then we ended up seeing only a small part. Most of the neighborhoods were full of drug houses, prostitution, burned out buildings. I’ll tell you, truthfully, it scared me. That was one of the reasons I didn’t run again and ended up moving to Watertown.”
“A lot of parts of Watertown were like that too,” Joel said. “I got to the point where I really had begun to hate the place.”
“I know exactly what you mean,” John said. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not glad that this happened, but… who knows how much worse things would have gotten? At least now there’s a chance to start over again, maybe.”
“You know what really got to me?” Glenn asked. Both men looked at him waiting for him to speak.
“You know where Mobile Alabama is?” they both nodded. “Well, I was down there a few years back to see a buddy of mine I was in the Navy with. We were always telling each other we were going to get together and finally we did. So we were driving down Airport Boulevard, kind’a the main street so to speak, and I was, you know, sort of looking around out the window. Sightseeing, I guess you could say. Anyway, I see this young girl standing in the middle of the island that splits the lanes holding a sign. I figured it was one of those ‘Will work for food’ signs, but as we got closer I saw it wasn’t. I could also see she was pregnant, couldn’t have been more than sixteen or so. I asked my friend to slow down so I could read the sign. I couldn’t believe it.”
“Well, what did it say?” John asked.
“Well, it was misspelled, you know, but it said, ‘I’m pregnant and abandoned, please help me.’ I couldn’t believe it, so I asked my buddy to turn around and go back, but by the time he did she was gone. I couldn’t believe that things had come to that.”
“That’s bad all right,” Joel said. “I’ve seen the other signs, the food signs, but I’ve never seen one like that.”
“I haven’t either,” John said, “but I can’t say it surprises me a lot.”
“Well,” Glenn continued, “that wasn’t the end of it, two days later I picked up the paper and there was an article about her in it. I guess I wasn’t the only one who had seen her. The police had picked her up earlier, and told her not to stand there with that sign. That was in the morning, and it was afternoon when I went by, so she must have come back. Quite a few people had seen her back there in the afternoon, according to the paper. Well, the thing is that somebody did stop and pick her up, but not to help her. They found her body in the bay the next morning. If they hadn’t picked her up the day before, they probably wouldn’t have known who she was, but they did, I guess. The story said they had fingerprinted her, and taken pictures too. I guess they arrested her, ain’t that a slap in the face? Anyhow, that’s how they identified the body… I’ve always wondered about it. Who would just abandon her in the first place? I mean, being pregnant and homeless? I’ve always felt that I should have convinced my buddy to stop right there. Fuck the traffic, just stop and pick her up…”
“…So, I’ve gotten pretty sick of the world myself. It never seemed to stop, and it seemed that people kept coming up with more ways to be cruel. To tell the truth, I’m glad it’s mostly gone, I hated it that much.”
When Glenn finished they were all silent for a few minutes.
Joel thought about the food signs. How many times had he seen them? Countless, he guessed, but he had never stopped. He had been, well, sort of afraid to.
“I think we all made our share of mistakes,” Joel said. “I know I did. I wish I hadn’t, but I did. I guess maybe things are better, in a way,” Joel finished his beer, got up, and retrieved three cold ones from the cooler in the Jeep. He handed one to each of the men before he sat back down in the chair.
“So,” John said, easing back into the conversation of where to go once they arrived in Rochester. “North side is out I think, there’s no way I’d want to go back in there, especially now. East side is mostly old mansions; East Avenue, Park Avenue. West is made up of mostly poor neighborhoods and shopping centers, and farther out small business. South side is a mix, some places are as bad as the North side, and others are as nice as the east side. Farther out though, it’s all malls and big discount stores. I’d say downtown would be a good place to start looking.”
“Why?” Glenn asked.
“Just a hunch, I guess,” he replied. “But where did you go after it happened?”
“I see your point,” Glenn said. Downtown, Glenn thought, was the first place he had thought of going. It made sense to him that it should be the first place to at least check.
“We’ll have to walk, at least I’m pretty sure we will,” John said.
“I believe you,” Joel agreed. “A city that size has a lot of traffic I suppose.”
“Unbelievable,” John said. “An awful lot of it ends up on the Can-of-Worms, but its heavy downtown too. There are still a lot of small companies down there, so I’m fairly certain we’ll have to walk down. We should be able to get within a block or two of the War Memorial though, and that’s dead downtown. City Hall is across from that, and if there are people, that’s where they should be. Of course the only real way to find out is to get there and see.”
The small caravan pulled back out onto the highway and continued on a few minutes later. Long before they reached Webster the stalled traffic began to back up, and they lost a great deal of time winding their way through it, or where that was not possible, pulling into the center traffic divider to get around it.
Even the center divider, a narrow, sloped grassy area double the width of the two lane highway, began to fill up with stalled vehicles, and several times they were forced to get around some other way. Fortunately the areas along the highway were crowded with small restaurants, shopping malls, and gas stations; the closer they got to Rochester. And they all had feeder roads. Roads that were mostly empty now.
The parking lots were fairly empty, and they managed to get around the stalled traffic that way.
When they reached Webster it was nearly 6:00 PM, and a light rain had begun to fall. The exit and entrance ramps were packed solid with cars, and impassable: As a consequence they were forced to drive the Jeeps down the side of the steep escarpment to the road below. Some cars appeared to have either been trying to enter or exit using the wrong ramps, and the results had been catastrophic.
Most of the cars were crushed and blackened shells. A large gasoline tanker sat amid the wreckage. The tanker had apparently tried to exit the entrance ramp and had crashed and burned.
It looked as though gas, from the ruptured tanker, had spread the flames under the entire bridge, and everything had caught. Joel supposed that several of the cars gas tanks had probably exploded too, helping to fuel the inferno.
Once they had negotiated the steep and muddy embankment and driven out of Webster the stalled traffic eased up.
“Most likely everyone stuck to the main routes,” John said. “I’d hate to see what the Thruway looks like though, it’s probably packed tighter than a drum.” The others nodded agreement.
Even though the stalled traffic had lessened, they were still forced to detour off the road several times to avoid accidents or vehicles that seemed to have been abandoned in the middle of the road. It was well after 8:00 PM when they reached the four corners in the small village of Fairport, and the sky was beginning to darken. The rain was coming down harder.
Joel angled the Jeep into a deserted gas station and they all ran toward the door which had been left propped open, thankful they were out of the rain.
They were no sooner inside, when the rain began to pelt the tarmac outside in great sheets. The sky darkened rapidly, and a stiff wind kicked up, blowing the trash that littered the streets through the air.
Joel was staring out the wide glass window when suddenly the street lights began to glow. Within a few minutes they were all glowing brightly, illuminating the wind driven sheets of rain. Haley walked over and flicked on a switch next to the door, and bright fluorescent lights buzzed to life overhead. She clicked on several of the other switches next to the first one, and the outside sign, along with the pump islands lit up.
“Looks like you were right, Glenn,” Joel said. Glenn, grinning, blew lightly on his finger tips and rubbed them on his shirt. “Elementary, my dear Watson,” he said, still grinning.
He was still grinning a few seconds later, when Lilly began to point out the window and screamed excitedly.
“Look!” she exclaimed, “a truck, people!”
Everyone quickly crowded toward the windows to look out.
An older Chevy sat at the curb idling, its wipers throwing great sheets of water from the windshield. The darkened side windows gleamed, reflecting back the bright glare of the station lights. Lilly, and several of the others were waving through the glass in an attempt to get the drivers’ attention.
“Looks like a Suburban… Where did it come from?” Joel asked, puzzled.
“I don’t know,” she replied. “I turned around and there it was. Aren’t they going to come in?”
“Maybe they’re afraid,” Haley said, shrugging her shoulders. “They must see us.”
Everyone stood silently for a few seconds staring out at the Suburban. It still sat at the curb, and it appeared to Haley that the person or people inside it were not going to come in. Just as she had the thought though, the car reversed, and began to slowly back up towards the entrance to the station.
When it reached the station entrance, it pulled slowly onto the edge of the pavement and stopped.
“What are they doing,” Terry asked, sounding slightly afraid.
Everyone else turned towards Joel expecting that he might be able to answer the question.
“I don’t know,” Joel said. “Could be they’re afraid, like Haley said.”
“Might be better to flick off the inside lights,” Glenn said, in a low tone of voice. “It doesn’t look as though they intend to say hello.” He peered out at the truck.
Haley reached over and flicked off the inside lights.
Almost immediately the Suburban’s headlights came on and it pulled ahead slightly, angling the beams into the station interior. The lights flicked up to high beams, flooding the interior in harsh bright light. Almost as soon as the lights had flicked up, the two front doors opened and two shadowed figures stepped out into the rain. The headlights were blinding.
“Listen, man,” One of the figures shouted in a deep voice. “You ain’t welcome here. You come into the city and you will get fucked up.” Silence held, rain drummed against the steel roof. The figures got back into the car. The headlights winked out.
Tiny spots floated in front of Joel’s eyes and he quickly blinked them away. The truck was backing slowly into the road, away from the station.
“What in hell are they doing?” Dave asked, looking at Glenn. “What the hell was that all about?” he asked again.
Glenn shrugged. “I guess we’ve been warned… I didn’t much like it, I can tell you.”
“I didn’t much like that either,” Joel said as he looked over at Dave. Glenn stood beside him, his eyes locked on the car.
Once the Suburban reached the roadway it pulled slowly up to the stop sign at Route 250 and once again sat idling, its lights still off. Joel tried squinting his eyes tighter, to see into the darkened side windows, but they were pitch black, like a limousine, he thought.
“What should we do,” Gina asked? Joel looked at her, and it was obvious she was frightened. In fact, he noticed, everyone, himself included, seemed frightened. Terry was the only one who had brought a rifle into the station with him and Joel noticed it.
“Terry, give me that,” he said motioning at the rifle.
“Be careful, Joel,” Glenn said, “No telling what they’re up to. I don’t know if it’s wise to go out there.”
“Don’t!” Haley said, turning to face Joel. She seemed on the verge of panic.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I only want to show them we’re armed… maybe they’ll take off. Think they’re armed, Glenn?” Joel asked.
“I don’t know, but who knows how friggin’ long they were sitting out there watching us, if they’d wanted to shoot us they could have easily. The lights in here probably lit us up like a damn Christmas tree,” Glenn stated. “I ain’t so sure you should be going alone if you’re going out there though. I’m going too.” Terry and Dave followed them out the door.
The four men advanced slowly toward the car in the pouring rain. The Suburban stayed put, its engine softly idling, and curls of white exhaust floating up through the sheets of rain. They stopped about ten feet from the still idling car, and Joel stepped to the front of the small group with the rifle clutched in both hands. He didn’t want to seem too threatening, but he wanted them to see the rifle.
“Hey, you in the car!” He shouted above the deafening roar of the rain. The taillights flashed briefly as if in answer, and a cold chill crept up Joel’s spine. He shuddered involuntarily. “What the hell is with these guys,” he muttered, to no one in particular.
“They are some kind of assholes all right,” Glenn whispered. Joel looked over and saw that they were all shaken. He tried again.
“Hey, what’s the problem?”
He had meant for the question to come out strong and loud, but it had not. Instead, the words had seemed to choke up inside him, and had sounded strangled when they had come out. The eerie feeling had gotten stronger, and Joel noticed that he felt an almost panicky urge to run back towards the station.
He looked at the others, and noticed they seemed to be panicked as well. What the hell, he wondered, as he fought to control the panic. He found himself suddenly raising the rifle and aiming at the car.
“Don’t shoot the bastard,” Glenn whispered.
“Don’t intend to. I just… I…”
Just after he began to lower the rifle, the Suburban’s headlights suddenly flicked on, and the rear tires spun on the slick pavement, smoking and screaming as they clawed for purchase. The engine whined higher in pitch and the big Suburban seemed to jump out into the intersection. Joel watched as it skewed around sideways on the wet asphalt and roared off towards Webster. A passenger leaned out the window and aimed a rifle at them.
The rifle in Joel’s hands bucked and the rear window of the Suburban burst inward in a spray of glittering black diamonds as it sped away. The shooter ducked back inside. Shapes moved and shifted in the back of the Suburban, maybe as many as half a dozen, Joel thought, maybe even more. No way to know, he decided. The pitch of the motor rose higher, and a few seconds later the taillights slipped out of sight.
“Christ.” Joel said, as his dry mouth tried to work.
“I counted at least eight with the driver and passenger,” Glenn confirmed.
Joel could still hear the Suburban accelerating in the distance over the sound of the rain as it sped away, and feel the heavy pounding blat of its engine in the pavement under his feet. The four men turned away and walked slowly back towards the station in silence.
Joel stopped at one of the Jeeps before they entered, and waited for the other three to catch up.
“Listen,” he said in a low tone, almost a whisper. “I don’t think it’s wise to scare the shit out of the others. Maybe we should tell them the back was empty. Agreed?”
Terry was still swallowing convulsively, but nodded his head up and down like a puppet. Glenn and Dave both mumbled agreement.
“Terry,” Joel hissed, “snap out of it. It won’t do any good if we walk in there with you looking like that.” Terry nodded and tried to calm down. “Maybe you can get Terry aside and talk to him, Dave.”
Just as Joel had finished speaking, the door to the station swung open, and the people inside poured out into the rain. Haley, looking badly shaken, walked towards them with her hands folded across her chest.
“They all had guns… The ones in the back, Joel,” she said. “I looked, we all looked, Joel…. When you shot out the back window.”
Her voice had risen as she spoke, and at the end she was nearly screaming. Joel pulled her to him and held her in the rain. To hell with it, he thought, keeping secrets was never one of my strong suits anyway. It’s probably better this way.
“Joel,” Glenn said. “I think it might be best if we stay here for tonight, instead of going into the city. I also think we ought to pull the Jeeps inside the service bays for the night… keep an eye on them. Probably ought to keep the rifles with us from now on too.”
“I guess you’re right, Glenn. Haley, why don’t you and the others go back inside and get the doors up. We’ll pull the Jeeps in… Okay?” She hugged him fiercely before she let go and ran back into the station. The three of them quickly drove the Jeeps into the service bays, and then locked the wide doors behind them. They locked the front door to the station as well, and they all walked back into the rear section of the garage bays by a small parts room.
Joel propped open the door to the parts room, and turned a small light on inside. The bulb was dim, but flooded weak yellow light out into the garage area, it was enough, he felt, if the Suburban came back he didn’t want them to be perfectly silhouetted inside the station by the florescent overheads in the garage bay.
Haley and Connie began to fix some cold sandwiches, while the others unloaded the sleeping bags and ice chests from the Jeeps.
Joel was into his second beer and his heart was just beginning to resume a somewhat normal beat. Terry walked back from the front of the garage where he had been staring out into the rain. They all half expected the Suburban to come roaring back at any second. The rifles were out of the Jeeps now. Close at hand, just in case. Haley and Connie brought a large stack of sandwiches over, and both grabbed a cold drink, sitting down as Glenn began to speak.
“This changes everything,” he said to no one in particular. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to just ignore it either.”
Joel took a deep gulp of the beer before he spoke. “I guess you’re right, Glenn and, it was stupid to think we should keep it to ourselves. I shouldn’t have suggested it.” He looked around at the small group of frightened people and his eyes locked on Haley’s as he continued to speak. “I thought it would shake everyone up for no reason,” he said. The argument seemed empty and somewhat foolish even to him. “Glenn’s right though. We started to discuss it back in Watertown, and didn’t. Maybe we should have…I don’t know.”
His eyes were sad, Haley noticed, and he shrugged his shoulders helplessly when he finished. Silence hung thick in the air for a few minutes until Glenn reluctantly began to speak again.
“I don’t pretend to have an answer for one,” he said quietly, as he looked around from one to the other. “I guess we can only go with what we know for now. What I mean is what we know from our own personal experience back in Watertown,” he waited but no one spoke.
Glenn continued. “I said before that I spent the night at the gravel pit, and I did, but I didn’t sleep. I couldn’t. I was too keyed up. Hell, we all were. Whatever this is it looks a lot worse now than it did then. This little trip has proven that it was not a localized thing. Probably Rochester is gone,” he shrugged. “No way to know, but is it worth an armed fight to find out? That sounds nuts, right?”
“No… Sounds sane,” Joel said. “We knew this, I think. I think we knew this. Maybe not that it would go this bad this fast, but I think we suspected… Suspected is a good word.”
“Possibly,” Glenn replied. He shook his head. “No, most likely. Most likely subconsciously we knew and didn’t want to face it. I guess the pretending is over now though… Maybe that’s for the best before one of us gets killed taking too much for granted.”
Joel nodded. “I… No, Glenn, I don’t think you’re nuts, if you are then we all are. I think the world ended. I mean the sensible part we all understood. I don’t know what in hell this part is… I mean there has got to be some way to explain or at least understand this.”
“You just did,” Haley said quietly from beside him.
“She’s right, Joel,” Glenn said, “You did. I don’t think this is a rational or predictable world anymore. If it isn’t, then all that’s left, Is simply survival or,” he motioned toward the outside, “Death… Let those people tell you how to live… Or Worse. There is no in between anymore, no walking the fence, the gloves are off, just one or the other.”
“So what’s next?” Gina asked, expectantly.
“If I knew that,” Glenn answered. “I guess I would be God. I’m not, so I don’t know…”
“…Just to make my position clear though, I don’t intend to start waxing religious, but you can bet that I might just start praying. It used to seem superstitious to me. Not anymore. Now it seems important.”
Silence hung in the air for a few moments, and Connie spoke up. “But what should we do? Should we go back, or go into Rochester, or should we maybe go somewhere else?”
“I think that question needs to be answered by all of us individually,” Glenn replied calmly. “It’s not a question one person can answer, and we’ve pretty much stuck together so far, I can’t see splitting up if there’s a disagreement. I think we all need to decide together.”
“I don’t see any reason to go back to Watertown,” Lilly said
“I agree,” Dave joined in.
“There’s nothing there for us,” Amber said.
One by one they all voiced their opinions, until only John, Haley, Joel and Glenn were left.
“I don’t see the sense in it,” Joel said quietly. The remaining three nodded their heads in agreement.
“So… do we go into Rochester, or somewhere else?” Glenn asked softly as he looked around the cramped garage.
“I for one would hate to think we came all this way for nothing,” John said. “I vote we go. If it’s bad,” he shrugged his shoulders, “we get the hell out and go somewhere else.”
Glenn looked back at the small group. “Well?”
Silently, they all nodded their heads in agreement.
“That’s that then,” Glenn said. “We’ll go in the mornin’,” he paused. “Tonight though, I think we need to keep watch. I’m going to take the first watch, who’s next?”
“Me,” Scott said.
“I’ll relieve you,” Dave said, “just get me up when you get tired.”
“That should see us through the night,” Glenn said. “…I think it’s best if we all sleep in here tonight, and on this side, behind the trucks. It might be a bit crowded, but I don’t want to take any chances.” Glenn finished, picked up his rifle, and headed towards the glass enclosed front of the gas station, and the small group began to break apart. Haley spoke up, after most of the others had drifted away.
“Ssh,” he said, as he put a finger over her lips, “no need.” He led her away and they pushed two sleeping bags together in front of one of the Jeeps.
“Joel?” she said, “I just need to be held.”
“I know,” he said quietly. “I need to hold you.” He took her into his arms and held her as he tried to push the thoughts that wanted to crowd his mind away. Haley slipped off to sleep quickly, but sleep eluded Joel. He lay quietly thinking, still holding her, until he drifted off to sleep himself much later.
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