I was pretty terribly conflicted as I left the jail complex. That deputy—his name tape had said Desilva—obviously needed help. So did the inmates who were still left alive.
But I didn’t think I could help the inmates without hurting Desilva, and as long as he was armed, that probably meant killing him. I wasn’t quite up for that at the moment. Seems like there’s already been enough death for today. The other issue on my mind was what to do next. That fire over on the west side of Jasper was still burning. I kind of wanted to check it out, but the reality was that it wasn’t that critical for me to know what was burning. I wouldn’t be able to do anything to put it out myself, and I’d pretty much confirmed that there wasn’t going to be anybody else coming to put it out. Plus I had a cousin over here on the east side of town where I already was.
There wasn’t a pretty or direct route to Steve’s place, but it wasn’t like I had a lot traffic to deal with. I started making my way down to East Gibson, then headed east to the outskirts of town. Navigating past all of the crashes and stopped cars took longer than I’d expected it to.
I had never been clear on how Steve Nowak was related to my family. Dad had said that the Nowak’s had married into the Ktokolwiek line about forty years ago, but I didn’t recall spending a whole lot of time with any of them except Steve. He was something of a conspiracy theorist and often seemed to be a beat behind things socially. Like he was a nice enough guy, but you wouldn’t necessarily want him dating your sister.
Steve had a place off of County Road 293, a little track that meandered its way north from Route 190 up towards 63. He didn’t have a mailbox at the end of his quarter-mile-long driveway, preferring to pick up his mail in town about once a week. So without that mailbox, it was very easy to drive right past his driveway, because he kept the entrance so overgrown. “Keeps the riffraff out that way,” he’d said on several occasions. The driveway had two big curves in it so that you couldn’t really see the house from the roadway, not that you’d be seeing a whole lot with regards to his house.
I had to give him a lot of credit. I never could figure out how he had financed it, but he had built quite a little bunker out of concrete and shipping containers. If you looked at it from the south side of the property, you wouldn’t see anything except a two-car metal shop. That shop concealed a stairway that went down into the bunker. The only other structures he had aboveground were two small windmills and a pump building for his water well. He had solar panels on the shop, and those, combined with the windmills, gave him plenty of electricity. A satellite dish mounted to one of the windmills provided his connection to the outside world.
The shop had an old Ford tractor along with a couple of pieces of farm equipment, which he used to pick up a little bit of money on the side cutting and raking hay for a couple of farmers. It also held his 1983 CJ7 Jeep, one that he had “cut all of the damn electronics out of,” not that there were many electronics in those vehicles going in. But that went along with his conspiracy theories and such. Steve always swore that, no matter what Mother Nature threw at him, he’d be able to survive. I was hoping he was right. Then again, I wasn’t sure this—whatever this was—came from Mother Nature.
I parked in front of the shop and headed in. I wasn’t expecting to see any signs of life until I got to what passed for foyer at the bottom of the stairway into his bunker. The motion-activated lights in the shop and the stairway came on just as I expected them to. I pressed the doorbell button and looked at the camera so that he could see clearly who it was.
After five minutes with no response, I hit the doorbell again and banged on the door several times. I was hopeful that he had survived, but not necessarily expectant. I still hadn’t wrapped my head around whatever had killed everybody, so I wasn’t sure if it was some bacteria or viral thing. I knew Steve heavily filtered the air that came into his building along with his water, so I hoped that he had survived because I thought that might give some small piece of data to help figure out what had caused this.
I waited five more minutes and repeated the cycle. Still nothing.
Well, crap. I wasn’t convinced he was dead, but I was no longer hopeful. I decided to head on home and see about making some phone calls. I had two ex-wives to check with, one of whom had one of my daughters living with her. My oldest daughter was in the Philadelphia area, living on her own. I didn’t know how many of them I would find alive, but I needed to face my fears and start checking into things.
I headed back into town the way I had come and made another slow pass through the center of town.
I was passing a bank on Houston just west of Wheeler when I thought I saw movement off to my right towards the courthouse. I pulled a U-turn at Austin, and headed back, halfway expecting to be pulled over for the U-turn. I circled the block on Zavala and Lamar, coming back down Austin and across Houston. I made the loop three times but never saw the movement again. I wasn’t sure if I was seeing things because I wanted to, or if there was someone out there trying to hide from me.
I zigzagged east and west, making my way north from Houston Street to Lamar then to Milam and then Crockett, where I just cruised on north on Wheeler Street. The speed limit was thirty-five, but I just let the car kind of drift along at about twenty or so, so I could take time to look around. There were plenty of cars out on the street, and as far as I could tell, all of them were in the same positions they had been in an hour or so ago when I had come into town. Many were parked, but just as many had rolled into parked cars or were sitting haphazardly against the curb with their drivers slumped over the steering wheel, when they were visible.
One of the things that confused me the most about whatever had happened was that none of the dead people had any signs of trauma, at least nothing obvious. The people who had been in high-speed crashes did, of course, but those all seem to be the result of the crash rather than whatever killed them. Then again, I couldn’t tell, with my limited base of knowledge, whether they had died before the crash or in the crash. Some of the people were starting to show signs of lividity, meaning they had died many hours ago, like close to midnight, which was now well over twelve hours ago. But not everybody was, which was confusing. That led me back to the idea that it was some sort of bacteriological or viral thing that had killed them, rather than some sort of weapon. That’s the only way I could explain what seemed to be a wave of deaths across the region, rather than an instant kill of everyone.
I made it back to the house without further incident. Minion was waiting for me at almost exactly the same spot he’d been when I left. He waited for me to acknowledge him, then sprang for my chest, backing me into the door and almost knocking me down as he whined happily and licked my face. The enormity of what had happened finally caught up to me, and I sank to the floor, sobbing loudly as I realized that my son was still dead. Minion crawled in my lap after a few minutes, snuggling against me as though he were trying to comfort me.
My stomach rumbled several times, one of them loud enough for Minion to swing his head around and stare at me. I pulled myself up and headed for the kitchen, not really hungry but knowing that I should eat. Took a minute to check my blood sugar and take my meds and insulin. Better late than never, right? Then I fumbled through the kitchen and put together a sliced turkey sandwich with a slab of tomato. I ate it fairly quickly at the counter, not even bothering to sit at the table. By the time I finished, Minion was over by the back door, scratching to go out. I turned him loose in the fenced backyard, and he barely got five feet off the porch before emptying his bladder and his bowels. I glanced around the living room and the hallway, expecting to find out he had had an accident in the house, but I was happily surprised to find that he hadn’t. That was a little odd. I had taken him out last night around eleven, and he had spent the next thirteen or fourteen hours cooped up in the house. The more I considered that, the more surprised I was that he hadn’t done something inside. I wonder if Kevin had let him out in the morning before. . .
I was obviously going to be on my own when it came to taking care of his body. I didn’t see that I had many options, either. I had several acres here, and I supposed that I could dig a hole, but given my overall physical condition, I didn’t think that was very practical. Cremation was certainly a possibility as well, but I rather doubted that I could get a fire going hot enough, or that I could tolerate watching my son burn up.
The most palatable option I could come up with was a burial at sea, such as it would be. Lake Sam Rayburn was over 150 feet deep in places, and I could probably do a burial shroud more easily than I could accomplish either of my other two options.
The only really difficult part of doing that would be finding a boat. Even though I’d lived in the area for over six years, I didn’t own a boat. My folks were beyond the age of wanting to take care of one and I couldn’t really afford one on my income.
I’m going to need to steal a boat. I raised my eyebrows and shook my head. The day was getting more and more surreal. Practically everyone I had run into today was dead, and here I was, contemplating committing a felony so that I could bury my son.
Minion was scratching at the door now, so I let him back in. Then my phone started ringing. It took me two rings to figure out where it was: back in Kevin’s bedroom. I trotted down the hall to try and get to it before the caller hung up or the call went to voicemail. It was still ringing when I opened the door and stared at Kevin. I froze for a second then forced myself to kneel down next to him and pick up the phone. It was my oldest daughter, Hannah. I answered it as I pulled the door closed behind me.
“Daddy? Daddy? Are you there? Please tell me you’re there.”
“I’m here, baby. I’m okay. Where are you?”
“I’m at home. I don’t know what the hell’s going on. I’m okay, but I haven’t been able to get a hold of anyone else. I tried Mom, I’ve tried Kevin and Taylor, I tried calling Ciera nine or ten times. This is the third time I’ve called you.” She sounded frantic when I first answered, but she was remarkably calmer now.
“I’m sorry, baby. I was out driving around town trying to figure out what’s going on. Trying to figure out who’s still left. Did it happen up there? What—what have you seen?”
“Everybody’s dead, Daddy.” Her voice was barely a whisper. “I got up just like usual and got ready for work. Then I headed out to go catch the train. But Mrs. Pryor was lying there in the lobby. I tried to help her, but she was cold. She was so cold.” She sniffled. “I called 911, but they didn’t answer. I tried the precinct, but they didn’t answer either. I was banging on the landlord’s door but there was no answer there either. Then I went out into the street, and there were so many people just lying there. I checked three or four of them, and they were all dead, and I just stood there. I didn’t know what else to do. I couldn’t understand why so many people were lying there dead.” She sniffled again and cleared her throat. “And then I started getting scared that whatever had hurt them was going to hurt me, so I came back inside. I haven’t gone out since then, and that was like at seven o’clock.”
“That’s. . . Basically what I’ve seen here. I had to go out to try and make contact with somebody, but I’ve only found one person still alive until I talked to you.”
She gasped. “Oh, God. Oh, God. Daddy, does that mean Kevin’s dead?”
My stomach started doing flip-flops. This would be the first time I had to say it out loud to another person. That was going to make it real. I didn’t want it to be real. “Yeah. Yeah, he is. I tried, baby. I tried to save him. But I think he was long gone by the time I woke up.”
The wailing cry that erupted tore my heart out.
My oldest daughter was 1,400 miles away, sobbing for her dead brother, and I couldn’t help her. Couldn’t hold her. Couldn’t dry her tears, or stop my own.
We both calmed down after a bit, but it took a long moment for either one of us to be able to speak.
“Daddy? What are we going to do now?”
My heart skipped a beat. Hannah was twenty-four years old. Strong. Independent. And she was scared out of her mind. For that matter, I was a little nervous right now. But I couldn’t let her see that. “I’m coming to get you, kiddo. It’ll take me a few days to get up there. I got to take care of. . . I’ve got to take care of some things down here, so I won’t be able to leave until Thursday at the earliest. And even on a good day, that’s a three-day trip from here, so I figure it’s gonna take me four or five days to make it up there. There’s no telling what the roads are going to be like, especially around the big cities. But I’m going to come get you.”
“Okay.” She was whispering again.
“Okay, are you safe at your place for now? You have enough food for a week?” I was trying to remember everything I knew about where her place was in Doylestown. She didn’t own a car, but she didn’t really need one because there was so much stuff so close to her apartment.
She snickered a little bit at my last comment. “Food is kind of a relative thing for me. I usually eat something at work. I don’t have a lot of stuff here right now, but I can make do.”
“Okay. You might go ahead and go out now and stock up on some things. Get a couple jugs of water. Pick up some stuff that’s relatively easily prepared. Don’t get all intricate with fancy cooking right now. Pasta and ground beef and tomato sauce will be just fine for the next couple of days. You might get some peanut butter too, and a couple of loaves of bread. That way you’ve got something to eat if the power goes out.”
“Oh geez. I didn’t even think about something like that happening. What am I gonna do if the power goes out?” Fear crept back into her voice.
“Buy a few candles, and pick up some flashlights.” I laughed at myself. Buy? I was telling my daughter to go out and loot. She must’ve had the same thought.
“Buy? Really, Daddy? I doubt there’s going to be anybody in any of the stores that I can get to.”
“Yeah, okay. I wasn’t thinking on that one. Look, just get what you can find, and be careful out there. I think whatever caused this is over and done with, but I’ve covered enough disasters that I know how survivors can be. If someone starts arguing with you over the supplies that you’re picking up, just walk away and leave them. You can find something somewhere else. And you might be careful about how much light you let out of your place once it gets dark.” I paused for a minute, trying to phrase this next part carefully. “What do you have that you could use as a weapon? You got a baseball bat or anything like that?”
“I’ve got something way better than a baseball bat. Ciera was letting me keep one of her off-duty guns here at the apartment, one of the little Glock nines. I’ll be okay in that aspect.” She sniffled again.
“Okay, sweetie. Look, I’ve got to get off of here. I’ve got a bunch of things to do before I go back into town. I’m still trying to see who’s survived down here and see what I can find out. I’ll call you about 10 o’clock my time. Is that gonna be too late?”
She laughed just a little. “I don’t know. I’ve got to get up really, really early for work tomorrow.”
The sarcasm came through loud and clear. I smiled. She’d be okay.
Copyright © 2019 Bob Mueller
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