I headed north out of town, thinking that if the bridge at Natchez was closed, it made more sense to find a river crossing to the north. South was Baton Rouge, then a roundabout path into New Orleans. There wasn’t really much else land after that. Sure, if I could cross at New Orleans or Baton Rouge I could take I-10 across the north side of the Gulf of Mexico, and make my way up through Mississippi or Georgia. But there was no guarantee that I was going to be able to cross the river in Baton Rouge or New Orleans. I figured it would take me at least a day and a half to get down that way, and then a day and a half to come back if I couldn’t cross. I wasn’t that nervous about Hannah being able to take care of herself, but I didn’t want to make my trip take any longer than absolutely had to.
It looked like it would take me about an hour or so to get up to I-20, and with any luck, I’d be able to cross the Mississippi at Vicksburg. I was really starting to run out of energy, both emotionally and physically. Plus, it was getting late enough in the day that I wanted to figure out where I was going to sleep pretty soon. I didn’t want to have to choose someplace in the dark.
It takes surprisingly little to close a four-lane highway bridge.
I almost gave up before even getting on the freeway because I could see a plume of smoke on the bridge from the on-ramp at Richmond, and that was almost fifteen miles away. Then again, Vicksburg was shrouded in smoke. I counted four distinct columns and half a dozen clouds with no obvious sources.
The first crash I came to wasn’t even over the river proper. There were two SUVs in a bizarre tangle of metal about a hundred yards before the riverbanks. I was able to get around those without too much difficulty, but within another couple of hundred yards, I could see that getting around that wreck hadn’t done me any good. There was another crash just east of the western riverbank, and it looked large. One car rested on its roof, an SUV on its passenger side shoved up against it. A pickup truck hung partway over the right side rail, looking as if it was crawling over the wreckage. After a moment, I realized there was a sports car underneath it. I parked a few yards short of that crash and Minion and I got out. He took the opportunity to stretch, then marked his place on the Jersey barrier. I headed over to the downriver side of the crash, the outside lanes of the eastbound side. There was just enough space for me to walk through, but it was a cinch I wasn’t going to be getting the truck through without a bunch of work.
Minion barked once from the other side of the crash after he realized he couldn’t see me. “I’m over here, dude. You need to stay with me.” He appeared on my side of the crash a minute later, having navigated through some small space on the inside lanes. I shook my head. He often seemed to find the hard way to do things.
This was the first time since I’d left Jasper that I’d stopped and gotten out of the truck to explore my surroundings at all. There was a strong smell of decomposition close to this crash, but once I was ten or fifteen yards away, I barely noticed it. I wasn’t sure if it was because it was so weak or because I had so quickly gotten used to it.
The plume of smoke I had seen earlier belonged to a major crash in the westbound lanes, about fifty yards on down. The burning remnants of a tractor-trailer sat at the back end of a long mass of smoking metal. I shook my head. There were probably a dozen cars in the crash and when I stood on the Jersey barrier, it looked like better than half of them had burned. I shook my head. Any fire that hot had almost certainly compromised the bridge deck. In normal times, this would cause horrendous traffic issues. Truckers and travelers would be backed up for over fifty miles, I bet. I couldn’t even picture what the detour would look like.
Another bridge sat just upriver from the one I was on. The GPS had called it the Old Vicksburg Bridge. From what I could see of the bridge deck, it hadn’t been used in ten years or more. A railroad line ran along the downriver side, and those rails shined in the late afternoon sun. I supposed that if I wanted to I might be able to find a railroad crossing nearby and drive down the tracks. That would be pretty stupid, Adam. Even though I hadn’t seen any trains since I’d left Jasper, that didn’t mean there weren’t any running. It would be my luck to be cruising along the bridge at forty miles an hour, and find an oncoming train. They wouldn’t be able to stop in time, and I wouldn’t be able to turn around or back out. I called Minion back, and we headed for the truck. “Let’s go explore this end of that other bridge. Maybe we can get across it. If it hasn’t been used in a while, there shouldn’t be any traffic blocking it.”
I also made a mental note to pick up some binoculars the next time I came across a big box sporting goods store.
As we got back to the truck, I noticed a number of barges wrapped around one of the piers on the old bridge. That was disconcerting. I had no way of knowing how hard they had hit the pier and how much damage they had caused when they hit.
Half an hour later, my shopping list included bolt cutters, and my truck had some new scratches and dings. I’d had to force my way through three gates to cross the old bridge. There were two at the west end, I guess so you’d know they were really serious about the bridge being closed. The driving lanes were ridiculously narrow. I straddled what was left of the yellow centerline, not wanting to think about what it would have been like with two-way traffic. It went something like you see in the movies, in that I basically hit the gate and broke the locks. I wasn’t going very fast for fear of triggering the truck’s airbags. That would have been problematic.
I didn’t see any major blockages on the freeway, so I decided to take I-20 as far as I could through town. I figured I’d be more likely to find a hotel that way, but the smoke from the fires was disconcerting. Within sight of the bridge, a mall just south of the highway belched out a thick column of dark smoke, and flames licked around the south end. I didn’t see any emergency equipment nor could I hear any sirens.
Further on, I saw more crashes, mostly single-car collisions where they’d run off the road. At the next junction, a restaurant at a strip mall spewed far more smoke than could ever be normal.
I didn’t see any movement around any of the businesses.
Half a mile on down, the junction was populated with four hotels and half a dozen restaurants. Of course, there’s no guarantee any of those hotels are going to be habitable. I doubt there’s going to be anyone at the front desk, and there’s no way I’ll be able to figure out how to get into a room. I sighed. The stench was likely to be pretty bad, too. Well, maybe. Today was Thursday, and this thing had happened Tuesday night, so we’d just be hitting 48 hours tonight. Bodies in air-conditioned hotel rooms wouldn’t start getting ripe for another day or two. Probably.
I took the ramp anyway, deciding that I wouldn’t learn anything unless I tried.
I tried the Holiday Inn first, just because it was the first one I came to. The automatic doors opened as we walked up, just like they were supposed to. The lights were all on, but I didn’t see anyone behind the counter. Minion stopped in the middle of the lobby, sniffing the air, then dropping his tail a bit. He walked slowly up to the door labeled “Office” and sniffed again, then sat and looked back at me. That’s probably not a good sign.
I stepped up to the counter, bracing myself for another dead body.
I took a deep whiff of my own, trying to pick up whatever scent my dog had, with no luck. It looked like there was an office on the other side of the wall behind the counter, but I couldn’t see around the corners. “Hello?” While I waited for the answer I doubted was coming, I fruitlessly looked for a service bell or call button. I called out twice more, waiting several minutes each time.
Minion hadn’t moved from his spot at the office door. I called to him and we headed back to the truck.
The last hotel I checked was a Motel 6 that sat at the back end of a service road, nestled up against some trees that probably marked the edge of the battlefield. The parking lot held fewer cars than any of the other three places, which meant that there might be more rooms open if I could actually get into them. The lobby here was empty like the Holiday Inn was, but there was a sign on the counter.
In formal English that read like it wasn’t the writer’s native language, it explained that the owner of the hotel was home “tending to his family,” and that he regretted not being there to serve anyone traveling. There was a list of room numbers and a pile of key cards, each with a room number written in permanent marker. Guests were instructed to take a key card and mark off the room number they were using. We were welcome to stay as long as we needed.
Interesting way to deal with it. I shrugged and grabbed a key for a first-floor room. Half an hour later, I’d realized I hadn’t organized things very well in the truck. I had to move almost every tote in the back of the truck to get to the food and clothes that I needed for the night. It took me another hour to get things settled in the room. I needed a better system, and suddenly missed Sarah, my second wife. She had a knack for organization and hospitality that I hadn’t seen before or since. If she were here, she’d have had the hotel room looking like an apartment in no time, and would be finishing up cooking dinner before I even had Minion’s food and water out.
After dinner, I tried calling everyone in the family again and reached no one. I left voicemails just as I had yesterday, telling everyone where I was and where I was headed. Then I called Hannah.
“Vicksburg? It doesn’t sound like you’ve made it very far.”
I sighed. “No, not really. I lost an hour trying to find a bridge across the river, then another forty-five minutes crossing here at Vicksburg. I’m not exhausted, but I didn’t want to have to figure out a place to stay in the dark.” I told her what the motel had done. “How are things for you?”
“Not bad right now. I saw a couple of groups of guys walking around earlier. I couldn’t tell if it was actually a gang or just a random bunch of people looking for stuff. Monica knocked on my door earlier, and we’ve talked a little. She hasn’t heard from any of her family.”
This was an intriguing turn of events, to say the least. Monica had bumped into Hannah and Ciera several times when she’d first moved into Hannah’s building. By that time, Hanna and Ciera were clearly a couple, and pretty comfortable showing affection. Hannah had told me Ciera wasn’t exactly out, partly due to the culture of the sheriff’s department. But they didn’t hide who they were, most of the time. Monica had given them a bunch of grief about keeping themselves under control, and it wasn’t appropriate for them to be as affectionate as “regular” couples, she’d said. They avoided each other as much as possible after that and politely ignored the other in public. “I bet that was an interesting time.”
I could hear the smile in her voice. “Not going to lie, I jumped out of my skin when she knocked. Then when I saw who it was, my jaw hit the floor. I almost didn’t let her in at first.”
“What made you change your mind?”
She sniffled. “When she said she hadn’t heard from her family. She just started bawling, Dad. She’s got a bunch of brothers and sisters and a ton of nieces and nephews, and she stood there and said, ‘I’m the only one left.’ She said that and lost it, and almost collapsed on me. I couldn’t turn someone away like that.” She sniffled again. “And after she got calmed down a little, she asked about Ciera, and we both started ugly crying. It was gross. Tears and snot and everything.”
“Has she figured out what she’s going to do?” Part of me hoped that she wouldn’t invite herself along. I wasn’t sure we’d have room for an extra person. Then again, I’d been mentally prepared to bring Damion along. Sort of. Maybe I just didn’t like her because of the way she’d treated my daughter.
“No, not really. We talked generally about what you and I were going to do, but that’s about it.” We chatted for another ten minutes as if it was a normal day, then said our goodbyes. I hoped I’d see her in just a couple of days, but I wasn’t expecting smooth sailing.