I slept late the next morning, finally getting out of bed about 9:30. The hotel was supposed to have a continental breakfast, but even on a normal day, it ended at nine. Minion started scratching at the door almost as soon as I sat up in bed, so I pulled on some shorts and shoes, grabbed my room key and my gun, and took him outside. I didn’t see any signs that anyone had tampered with the truck overnight. There was one other car in the parking lot that hadn’t been there last night, but I didn’t feel like figuring out what room they were in.
I decided not to cook a real breakfast because I was getting out later than I wanted to this morning, so I took my meds, grabbed a quick shower, and started loading the truck. We left out of the parking lot just before 10:30, which I thought was a pretty good start to the day. An hour later I was rolling into Yazoo City.
Route 3 followed a bridge across a lagoon south of town and the bridge was open, but I decided to veer off on Old Route 3 and head into town. The small towns I’d passed through had been mostly empty, or quiet enough that I assumed they were empty. I hadn’t seen a single other moving vehicle since I’d left Vicksburg.
An Amtrak train sat idling at the station, blocking Broadway. I doubted anyone on board was alive because I just couldn’t conceive that any train service would still be running. But I couldn’t resist the idea of checking it out.
The locomotives were five cars north of the station, a deep rumbling hum filling the air. I smelled death, but it was more of an occasional whiff than an overwhelming stench. The “station” here was just an oversized bus shelter with no walls. A couple of suitcases waited near the benches, but nobody and no bodies were visible. I took a step toward the nearest coach, Minion following me. “Stay here, buddy. I’ll just be a minute.” He whined, but he sat.
The decomposition smell grew much stronger, raising bile in my throat. I almost backed out just then, and I still don’t know why I kept going. The stink was strong enough that I knew I wouldn’t find anyone alive.
I didn’t. The upper level of the car held maybe a dozen bodies, all still seated. Some were slumped over as if they were sleeping. I checked a couple of bodies near the front of the car, turned around, and freaked just a little. An older white man seemed to be staring at me, his eyelids still wide open. I moved back and forth in front of him and could have sworn his eyes followed me as I moved.
I sighed, went back downstairs, and left the train.
I leaned against the truck, thinking. The scale of this disaster was finally starting to register, and almost overwhelmed me. I teared up just a little thinking about the loss humanity had suffered. Doctors. Artists. Musicians. Craftsmen. Tradesmen. All gone. Did Keith Richards survive?
How could society rebuild?
How should we rebuild?
Should we rebuild?
The weight of those questions threatened to crush my soul.
I shook my head, called Minion to the truck, and we continued north. My mind stayed blank for miles and miles, nothing registering. If it hadn’t been for the “Rerouting” notice from my GPS just outside Carrolton, I’d probably have ended up in Memphis instead of making the turn I needed. As it was, I’d sailed right through the intersection of 17 and US-82. Good thing there wasn’t any cross traffic.
We stopped at the I-55 overpass, as much to let Minion empty his bladder as to give me a look at the highway. I counted six crashes just at the junction and wondered how many people who’d survived the dying-off died as a result of a collision just after. Irony overload. A rise to the south kept me from seeing anything in that direction, but based on the cars strewn along the road to the north, I probably wasn’t missing much. Cars and semis and SUVs littered the roadway, the shoulders, the median. A smoky haze lingered, filled with the smell of hot metal, burning rubber, and other things I didn’t really want to think about. 82 ran north of Winona, and I briefly considered driving through town to check on things, but the wind shifted and the stench on the breeze convinced me otherwise.
I drove on, forcing myself not to look as I passed through silent town after silent town. I kept waiting for some sign or sound of life, but all I saw were clouds of vultures marking their latest find.
That’s what I really started shutting down emotionally, I think. I just couldn’t quite wrap my head around the losses that humanity had incurred. What was it that Stalin had said? “A single death is a tragedy, and a million deaths, a statistic?” This was much more than a statistic and I just couldn’t deal with it. Nothing registered for the next while. I just drove on, barely hearing what the GPS was telling me.
At one point north of Aberdeen, I was shocked by the sound of a couple of turbine engines passing over. Off to my left, I could make out a pair of planes heading south. A minute or so later, the same two planes made a low northbound pass over my head. As they waggled their wings and turned back to the south, one of the pilots seemed to wave to me. I assumed they were from Columbus Air Force Base, which told me that there was someplace else where people had survived. If I remembered my nomenclature, they were T-6 IIs, because Columbus was a major Air Force training base. I filed that away for reference and did what I had been doing all day: drove on.
As the day got later and I got close to Chattanooga, the sky darkened to the north. At first, I thought it was storm clouds, but then the smell started wafting my way. Something was obviously burning, but there was that odd underscent of cooking meat. I’d smelled it once before the die-off when I was covering a story about a crematory in North Texas. So was someone burning a bunch of bodies? Or was the city on fire and bodies were being burned as a side effect? I decided I didn’t really want to find out and pushed on, finally settling on an RV Park about twenty miles north of town on US-28.
The place was disturbingly quiet. Three RVs sat silent witness to the end of the world.
I didn’t check any of them.
Minion couldn’t quite figure out what I was doing. He lay in the grass near the campfire ring, watching me struggle with the tent and probably laughing to himself. It only took me ten minutes once I figured out how the poles went together. It took me half an hour to get to that point though. Once I had the cooking fire going, I realized I didn’t have any oil or cooking spray. Freeze-dried food it is, then. And add more things to my shopping list.
I sat back in my camping chair after the dog and I finished eating, still mentally stuck in my thoughts from the train. What would it look like to rebuild society? The nation? I wasn’t sure it would be a good idea to rebuild exactly what we’d had before. There had been so much raw anger and hatred over the last few years, I wasn’t sure the United States would survive the next elections.
How could we preserve the knowledge that we still had left? I suspected it wasn’t going to take long for the power grid to start crashing, and that would take the internet with it. Cell towers would go down right along with the ‘net. I’d checked my cellphone when we first got here and again after I had the tent up, and had no signal at all. I wasn’t sure if it was because of the valley we were in, or the towers being out of commission. I made a mental note to try and find a landline tomorrow. I assumed Hannah was trying to reach me or had tried to reach me and was probably going more than a little crazy being unable to reach me.
I wondered if the automated billing systems would start shutting down cell phone accounts when people didn’t pay their bills.
For that matter, what did money even mean this point? All of the post-apocalyptic stories and movies that I read and watched seemed to assume that we would quickly move to a bartering system in the event of an apocalypse. You want water? No problem. It’ll cost you fifty rounds for my rifle here. Or I’ll trade you my rifle for, I don’t know, a cow. But I still hadn’t made that transition in my own mind. I had committed multiple counts of theft, at least in the real world. Or the old world. But was the old world real? I guess it might’ve been. The new reality was probably going to be a bartering system though. That didn’t comfort me all that much when I stopped to think about how much I had stolen in the last few days. A truck. Couple of guns. Food. Lots of supplies. Sure, I could justify it by saying that it was all a matter of survival. But I was still stealing things. I wondered how long that attitude was going to stick with me.
I quit thinking about things and grabbed a stick Minion had been gnawing on. He wasn’t real thrilled with me until I tossed it. We didn’t play fetch a lot back home, but when we did, he really enjoyed it. It helped me keep my mind off of things briefly. As it started getting dark I realized that none of the lights were coming on. Minion and I walked over to the office but it too was dark. Was the power grid already starting to fail? There wasn’t anything I could do about it even if it was. None of the houses in the immediate vicinity had any lights on either. I shrugged and headed back to the camping spot.
Copyright © 2019 Bob Mueller
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