I liked Alexandria. It was a pretty city and had lots of stuff to do. I’d visited several times over the years, mostly for the Alex River Fête. I was still going to call it that, even if they changed the name to the “Alexandria Red River Festival” last year. It was full to the brim with Civil War history, too, which had always interested me. The kids and I had visited several times, for the festival, for the historical sites, and just to hang out. It was a nice day trip from Jasper.
Those days were gone, probably forever.
The place was a ghost town. I saw a lot of what I had seen in Jasper: crashes at various intersections that looked like they had happened a couple of days ago. A car into a building here and there. A couple of bodies on the ground outside a bar. But I didn’t see a single living person. I didn’t hear any motor vehicles anywhere.
The traffic lights cycled silently. Green. Yellow. Red. I stopped for the first several purely out of habit. I looked around several times at the next red light I came to, as much for pedestrians as for cops. There weren’t any of either.
I still felt guilty running the light.
After half an hour, I still hadn’t seen anyone alive. I got up on I-49, trying to get a handle on what the freeways would look like. It was a mess. I never really got on the freeway proper. It was so jammed with wrecks and wreckage and debris that I almost considered backing back down the ramp I had come up. I was able to navigate around the worst of it and get off at the US-71 junction, but as I looked ahead toward the Red River, I realized it was impassable. Even from a mile or so away, I could tell that the traffic jam up there probably wasn’t even passable on foot.
I had already seen that the drawbridge was up, which was a little odd in and of itself. They usually didn’t open the bridge at night, and I seemed to recall that you had to call ahead a couple of hours to get open during the day. As I drove along Levy Park Road, making my way south to the last bridge in town, I didn’t see any boat traffic on the river that would’ve been tall enough to need the drawbridge opened. For that matter, I didn’t see any boat traffic at all, not even wreckage.
The US-167 bridge didn’t look any better than the 71 bridge had. The southbound lane had part of a tractor-trailer hanging over the side of the bridge, like something out of a TV thriller. I looked over at Minion. “North or South, bud? Because it’s pretty obvious we’re not crossing the river here.”
I panned around the area on the GPS map and decided to go south. There looked to be a bridge in Moncla, and it seemed like it would be much lower traffic than anything to the north. At least that was my hope. A little over an hour later, we found my hunch was right. I stopped before we crossed the bridge, as much to give Minion a chance to relieve himself as to stretch my legs. He usually traveled pretty well, but I had been exploring a lot, and I don’t think he really understood what was going on. He had been getting kind of antsy, bouncing from one window to the other and sniffing a lot at the strange smells in Alexandria. It was a decent-sized city of 50,000, or at least it had been, and was starting to get ripe. I wondered now if there were fifty people alive. The smell was definitely noticeable. I couldn’t imagine what the larger cities like Houston, or Austin, or Baton Rouge would be like.
We headed on up 115 and got back on 28, passing through little villages like Effie and Deville and Archie. I saw little movement in any of the places. Just before I reached Jonesville though, where the Little River takes a big dip south close to the road, I saw a man in a canoe heading downriver. He didn’t look up as I passed.
Less than a mile later, I came up on a roadblock at the south end of Jonesville. Two big dump trucks sat nose to nose, both of them big four-axle trucks that you wouldn’t be able to push past unless you were driving a tank. A tractor-trailer sat to the right with what looked to be a pile of sandbags on the roof, and a couple of heads just visible over the top of the sandbags. Half a dozen pickup trucks waited near the tractor-trailer. A large sandwich board sign sat about 50 yards out, instructing me to “Stop here. Shut vehicle off. Wait for contact.” I did as instructed. Minion whined when I shut the truck off and rolled the windows down.
A minute later, a four-wheeler started up and rolled out from behind the dump trucks, headed for me with two riders. They stopped about twenty feet in front of me. Even at that distance, I could see they weren’t twins, but they were definitely brothers and had the wiry, tanned look of farm boys. The one on the back was literally riding shotgun, a big pump-action gun in his right hand, braced against his leg. He dismounted as soon the four-wheeler stopped and moved off to the side. They had clearly practiced how to approach a vehicle.
“Where you headed?” the driver asked. He looked to be the younger of the two. His tone wasn’t exactly cold, but it wasn’t very neighborly either. The one with the shotgun was off to my right. He started talking into a small handheld radio while I looked at his brother.
“Philadelphia. One of my daughters is up there.”
“And where you coming from?” Very matter-of-fact. He had clearly had this conversation a few times.
“Who-alls with you?” He pulled a notepad from his back pocket and started scribbling.
“Just me and my dog. My son…. My son didn’t make it.”
He wasn’t looking at me just then so I couldn’t see his face. But something in his posture changed. It was like he relaxed a little bit. Or maybe he sighed. “Sorry to hear that. Guess there’s a lot of that going around.” He looked over to his brother. “One adult male and one dog. Out of Jasper, headed for Philadelphia.” He climbed off the four-wheeler and stepped up to my door slowly, studying the truck pretty carefully for someone who looked to be barely out of his teens. “Jonesville is kinda closed right now. We all know something big is happening, and ain’t nobody really sure exactly what’s causing it. So until somebody figures something out, we’re not exactly letting anybody into town.”
I sighed. This was gonna make things more than a little difficult. It made perfect sense from their end. Nobody official had made any kind of statement that I had heard. The sergeant back in Leesville had pretty much confirmed that there was nobody left in the presidential line of succession. I hadn’t really tried to contact anyone in Austin, either. “Have you guys heard from anyone in Baton Rouge or New Orleans or anything?”
He shook his head “No, sir. We’ve tried calling a bunch of places, and our police chief has been trying every radio channel he can think of. Ain’t nobody talking to him.”
I nodded. “I came through Alexandria a while ago. I don’t think I saw anybody moving. Spent forty-five minutes or so looking around, too. I did notice a guy down the river just a little ways back.”
The kid nodded. “That’s Bill Ford. He lives on the river a little ways out of town. And you’re right about Alexandria, least as far as we could tell. We had some guys run over there and check it out yesterday, and they didn’t find nobody neither.” We looked at each other for a minute or so. “What your dog’s name?”
“That’s Minion. Picked him up from the pound a couple of years ago.” The dog had moved over to the driver’s side window, wagging his tail and sniffing at the air. The scent of death that had been almost overpowering in Alexandria was gone here.
The kid moved a little closer, reaching up a hand toward Minion. “He gonna bite me?”
I shook my head. “I kinda doubt it. He’s awfully friendly. Only time I’ve ever heard him growl at somebody was a guy I caught snooping around my house one night.”
“That’s a good dog, then.” Minion licked at the offered hand, and just like that, they became friends.
“So you said the town’s closed. That makes sense. I figure you don’t want anybody staying in town until you know if this thing is contagious or whatever. What’s the easiest way for me to get across the river here?”
“Well, we’re not lettin’ anybody stay in town. But we are letting people pass through if they meet certain criteria.” He smiled a little bit.
I cocked an eyebrow, not sure if this was going to be a shakedown for supplies or what. “Okay, I’ll bite.”
He snickered a little bit. “Well, you can’t be no asshole. And you gotta ask nicely.”
I couldn’t help but chuckle. It was probably the first time I laughed since I woke up Tuesday morning. “I assume I’ve passed the asshole test.”
His smile broadened. “Oh, yeah. I mean, you got brownie points for having a nice dog, but you were already in pretty good shape.”
“The people who don’t pass the test, what are they like?”
“We’ve only had one guy like that so far. He started spouting off about calling his senator and calling the sheriff, the state police, saying we didn’t have no right to block the road here. We told him it was a matter of self-defense, and he could turn around and go back where he came from, or we could bury him in the river.”
Any other time, that would’ve seemed grossly abrupt, but I understood their reasoning. This is a small town of a couple thousand people, and they probably barely had things under control right now. I nodded. “I assume he chose wisely.”
Now it was his turn to chuckle. “Yeah. Wisely.”
“Well son, I can’t really ask you nicely until I know your name.”
He offered his hand. “Kevin. Kevin Campbell, sir.”
I shook his hand. “Well then, Mr. Campbell. If y’all wouldn’t mind, is there a way I could pass through your town? I’ve got no intention of staying. I’m just trying to go take care of my little girl.”
He nodded. “Happy to oblige, sir. I’ll have to ask you to roll your windows up, and not stop unless the truck in front of you stops. We’ll have one in front of you and one behind you, and we’ll get you through town in a few minutes.”
“That makes sense. I’m Adam Ktokolwiek. Y’all take care of yourselves down here.”
“You do the same, sir. I’ll have you follow me up to the roadblock. When we go around the dump trucks, I’ll peel off to the side, and you’ll follow the red pickup truck with its four-ways on.”
Twenty minutes later, Jonesville was out of sight behind me. I hoped they would be all right.
It was only about fifteen miles to Ferriday, so it should have only taken me about twenty minutes to get there. It was closer to forty-five minutes when I rolled into town. The biggest problem I had was driving slowly past the houses that I could see from the road. I was trying to get an understanding of how many people were still left alive. I considered going down a few driveways but decided against that because I didn’t know what I would do if I found somebody alive. I didn’t really have any concrete information. They would probably be able to find out more by looking around online. Plus, in a situation like this, I don’t know that I would’ve responded well to some stranger knocking on my door and asking me questions. This part of the state, at least as I understood things, was heavily African-American. Ferriday had even operated a private whites-only high school for a time, right after their schools were desegregated. At some of the houses I might have stopped at, I was probably just as likely to get a shotgun in my face as I was to find dead bodies inside.
Once I got into town, I did the same slow idling through town that I had done in Leesville and Jasper. On a normal day, it might’ve looked like I was a tourist on a sightseeing drive. I was on one of the side streets east of Wallace Boulevard when I saw a mail carrier’s truck driving towards me. I didn’t know what to think. This was one of the last things I expected to see. Getting the mail through had been a big deal when I was in the Army. We had a platoon sergeant who would make sure his guys got their mail even when they were just working a field problem here in the States. Having the mail go through made things seem very normal, even if it was pretty late in the day for a mailman to be out making his rounds. At least it would have been in Jasper. I had no idea what time of day the mail routes were handled in this part of Louisiana.
I stopped and rolled my window down. Minion barked, wagging his tail slowly. He could tell something was up, but I don’t think he really could understand how big a deal this was to me. He turned toward my open window from the passenger seat and sat, eyes fixed on the truck as it got closer and stopped.
The driver came over to the left side of their vehicle and slid the door open. “You look like you’re lost.” She was a short, muscular, black woman, maybe close to my height, with very close-cropped hair.
I smiled. “I’m not so much lost as I am surprised. Is the mail really running?”
“Don’t know. But I got nothing else to do right now, so I figured I might as well come in and run my route.” She shrugged. “We ain’t had a truck come in since Monday evening. I ain’t heard from anybody in any of the hubs either.” She sighed, and her whole body sagged with it.
“How bad is it?”
She sniffled, wiped her eyes. Looked everywhere but at me. “It’s pretty bad. Talked to my sissy down in Natchez. She say the bridge down there all blocked up. She can’t get up here to me. Probably going to try and drive over there and meet her on the Vidalia side. She the only one left in her family. Husband. Two kids. Bunch of cousins, too. Say she tried to call ‘em all and nobody answer. About the same over here.” She stepped out of the truck, grabbed a pack of cigarettes from her purse on the floor and lit one. “You the first live white person I’ve seen since Tuesday morning. Where you from?”
“Jasper. I’m trying to get up east to pick up my little girl, and check on the rest of my family.”
“Where she at? You talked to her yet?”
I nodded. “Just outside Philly. I talked to her last night and this morning. I’ve got some folks in Ohio that I haven’t heard from though.”
She took a long drag, blowing the smoke out of the side of her mouth away from me. “That’s not a good sign.” I knew that. And I figured she knew I knew that. It didn’t make any sense to me for her to say that. It was almost like she was rubbing it in that most of my family was gone. I suddenly didn’t like her too much. I decided not to tell her anything about Jonesville. “No, I suppose it’s not. But I figure it can’t hurt me to go up there and check on them when I go pick up my daughter. You take care of yourself.” I put the truck in gear and pulled away, not really caring that we had never introduced ourselves.