I hadn’t slept well. Minion kept alerting to sounds outside the tent because neither one of us was really used to camping out. There were all sorts of strange noises for both of us and I’m sure some strange smells for him.
Before we hit the road, I forced my way into the office and tried to call Hannah with their landline, but it was dead. No lights either.
Knoxville had the same pall of ugly gray and black smoke as Chattanooga had, so I stayed on US-11 all the way up to around Princeton. I-77 didn’t look bad there, so I decided to head south and pick up 81 on the other side of the West Virginia-Virginia border. The highway I was on looked really nice, and I was sure that the scenery was even prettier in the fall, but some of the switchbacks and curves that looked to be coming up weren’t going to help my travel time any. If I didn’t run into jammed or damaged bridges or overpasses, I would probably be able to make better time on the freeway.
The first five or six miles around Wytheville and Fort Chiswell were pretty ugly with lots of multi-car crashes around the interchange. I briefly reconsidered my decision but decided I’d stay on 81 for another ten or twelve miles and see if it opened back up. There was a US highway a ways ahead that I could use to get back on my original path.
The road did clear up quite a bit. Roanoke had some traffic moving, and while there were a couple of obvious fires, it didn’t look nearly as bad as Chattanooga or Knoxville. That brought me some small comfort. Just outside of Roanoke, my phone picked up service again and pinged with alerts: three messages from Hannah, along with a voicemail from an old Army buddy in Colorado. I pulled over to avoid killing myself while texting. I’d never been very good at it before, and things were much more dangerous now.
Hannah’s messages were just asking where I was and when I thought I’d be there. Her last one sounded a little concerned – she wondered if the messages were getting through. I thumbed the Call button, expecting her to answer quickly, but it went to voicemail after a dozen rings. Under different circumstances, I’d have laughed. “Hey, kiddo. I’m just outside Roanoke, and still at least a day and change out. Phone coverage is already getting spotty, but I don’t know if it’s because of the mountains or what. I’m gonna see how close I can get to Hagerstown tonight. I’ll try and call you here and there. If you’re hanging out with Monica, text me her numbers, too. Love you.”
I worked really hard to keep my voice calm, but I was a little nervous. I sent her a text message with the same basic info and crossed my fingers.
The voicemail was Joe Caughey. He’d been in one of the recon platoons in 4th Infantry with me, and we’d become friends. We’d visited a few times since we got out. He’d stayed in Colorado after his enlistment was up, joining a sheriff’s office near Four Corners.
“Adam? Joe. I’m callin’ people to see how they are, trying to get a handle on this. Ruby and I are okay up here. The county and the reservation both seem to have done all right, compared to what I’ve heard. Give me a call or text if you’re okay.” He sounded pretty unconcerned with life, which was his normal attitude. It took a lot to rile him up.
I hit the call button, and he answered on the third ring. I caught him up on what I’d been dealing with and where I was.
“Ah, damn, Adam. Sure am sorry to hear about Kevin. But Hannah’s okay, right? What about the others?”
“Still haven’t heard from any of them. And Hannah texted me a bunch yesterday, but she’s not answering her phone or texts right now. I’m about a day-and-a-half out, but I’m thinking I’m going to push it and get there in one long day. Makes me a little nervous that she’s suddenly not answering.” Scenarios were already starting to play through my mind. I could come up with a dozen reasons for her to not answer, and not all of them were bad. But the bad ones were pretty scary.
“I can check and see if we’ve got any hams in the area. Looks like quite a few survivors are ham operators, and they’re staying busy relaying messages,” Joe said.
“I appreciate it, Joe. I’ll try to stay in touch with you. Cell’s all I’ve got right now though. Not even a CB radio in the truck. I’ll add that to my list of things to get.”
“What are you seeing with survivors? Anything odd?”
“Let me think for a minute.” The only big group I’d seen other than around Fort Polk had been Jonesville, where they had roadblocks at each end of town. They didn’t seem to be acting out of anything but an abundance of caution. “Why do you ask?”
“Well, so far it’s been quiet. There’s a couple or five guys, Utes, who’ve been troublemakers in the past, and they’re making noise about how the tribe needs to start taking back what was stolen, and all that kind of crap. These guys have talked this kind of crap for years now, and usually, no one takes them seriously, but it’s a different world now. Just wondering if you’ve seen anything like that.”
“No, not yet. But I read the same novels you used to. I figure there’s a nugget of reality in some of those books. I hope people stay sane, but who knows?”
We chatted for a few more minutes, then I continued north. My GPS told me I’d shave four hours off my trip by moving to the interstate, at least at normal speeds. I found a gas station fifteen miles further on that still had power, so I stopped to top off my tanks and gas cans, and grab another bag of ice for the cooler. There was a note at the cash register explaining how to turn the pumps on. I guess the owner figured it was easier to do it this way instead of expecting someone to stay at the station all day. I had cash, and I assumed I still had money in my bank accounts, but if the cell and power grids were already starting to fail, was I going to be able to access any of it? And if I couldn’t access it, did I really have it?
I thought about leaving a twenty on the counter but decided against it. It bothered me a little bit that the decision to just take the gas was so simple. But it didn’t bother me enough to leave any money.
I’d been using Waze as my GPS for most of the trip, and it had been very quiet as far as warning me about problems ahead. An hour north of Roanoke though I got my first report: “Object on road ahead.” The object turned out to be a major crash spanning both the northbound lanes of 81.
Minion and I got out of the truck to take a look around. I closed the door, took a couple of steps and got a funny feeling in my gut. I stopped, taking a full minute to study the traffic jam from where I was. Then I started looking closely at the tree line on either side of the interstate. I still couldn’t shake the hinky feeling, so I reached back in the truck and grabbed the rifle from the back seat and jacked a round in. I stuck a second thirty-round magazine in my back pocket and headed for the traffic jam.
I’d stopped maybe seventy-five feet from the first car, but it felt like a much longer walk. There were several vultures circling overhead, and more than a few perched on cars.
The road here dipped down and went back up over the course of a couple of miles, and the crashes were on the downhill side of the northbound lanes. At my end, it seemed to go from guardrail to guardrail, and there wasn’t an easy way for me to cross the median here. Cable barriers, put up over the last ten years or so to prevent out-of-control cars from crossing the median and striking oncoming traffic, stretched ahead of me. A number of cars and trucks had mowed down part of the barrier, but I couldn’t tell if there was enough room for me to get by. There was a lot of clutter in the southbound lanes as well.
It occurred to me that this would’ve been a really good time to have a drone of some sort so I could get a live overhead view of how bad this really was.
I did manage to climb up in the bed of a pickup truck that wasn’t too badly damaged. I took another minute to study the road ahead with the advantage of additional height and decided that I should be able to cross the median and use the southbound lanes. As I started climbing down off the truck, I realized that the car next to me had bullet holes in the driver window and nobody inside. There was plenty of blood on the seat though.
I finished getting down a little more quickly than I had climbed up.
I called Minion back from wherever he had been exploring; he appeared around the driver’s side of the truck a moment later. “Stay close, buddy. I don’t like the way things are shaping up here all of a sudden.” His ears swiveled and he tilted his head as though he were trying to understand exactly what I was saying.
The seventy-five feet back to my truck looked even longer than it had on the way in. I crouched down and made my way to the end of the tangled mass of cars, then stopped to scan the area around me again.
Several of the vultures north of me suddenly took flight, sending my heart rate through the roof. I got down on my belly and looked underneath the wreckage to see if I could pick out anyone trying to sneak up on me. Maybe I’m just being paranoid. Yeah, I’m sure there’s a completely valid reason for there to be bullet holes in this unoccupied vehicle.
Minion alerted. He had lain down when he saw me get down on the ground. But now he was sitting up, eyes alert, ears swiveling, nose sniffing the air to the north of us. I flipped the safety off the rifle.
My heart racing, I took another look under the wreckage but still didn’t see anything. “Okay, buddy. We’re gonna make a run for the truck. Heel.” I rose to my knees, told Minion to heel again, and then took off in a low sprint.
I must have surprised them, because they didn’t fire their first shot until I was almost at the truck, and it whined off the road well behind me. I didn’t need to worry about my dog, because he was already at the truck, frantically scratching at the door for me to open it.
It sounded like the shot had come from my left, but I didn’t want to take the time to figure out where they were or to engage in a major gun battle. I was almost certainly outnumbered and that’s never a good way to start a gunfight. I threw the rifle up on the dashboard, started the truck, hit the four-wheel-drive and headed for the break in the cable barrier. I heard two more shots but didn’t see or hear any impacts on the truck, so I kept going.
Minion whined and yelped as I jerked the wheel back and forth, navigating through the half-mile of wreckage. The attackers must have been on the east side of the road with their line of sight blocked by the pile-up because I didn’t hear any more gunfire.
Once I cleared the wreckage in the southbound lanes, I kept my foot to the floor until I came to a rest stop. I pulled up the exit ramp and stopped to check the truck. Minion whined at me when I got out and didn’t want to get out himself. He stayed in an excited, tense crouch on the passenger seat even though I tried calling him out a couple of times. “Come on down, buddy. It’s okay.” He didn’t budge. I finally had to lift him down, and he didn’t like it a bit. I’m sure it looked comical, this eighty-pound dog doing his level best to climb on my shoulders while I tried just as hard to put him down on the ground. So much for being my fearless protector.
I finally sat down and held him like I would a scared toddler. I couldn’t blame him for being wigged out. He’d never had a gun fired at him before—not that I had either—and his entire world had been turned upside down. He whimpered and trembled for two solid minutes, head constantly pivoting as though he was convinced we were about to be attacked again. Even when I let go of him, he stayed in my lap, leaning up against me.
After another few minutes, I got up and checked the truck more carefully. Minion stayed about a foot away from me as I circled. I didn’t see any damage, so I loaded the terrified puppy back in the truck and we continued north.
As much as I hated to make another detour, I started watching for signs of a Walmart or Bass Pro or anyplace that might have ammunition and magazines for my rifle. I was in good shape for the shotgun, but that wasn’t a long-range tool. I had seven magazines for the rifle, all fully loaded, and that would have been my basic ammo load in the Army. But I wasn’t completely comfortable with having “only” two hundred rounds now. Objectively, I knew it was in response to the attack. But that didn’t really calm my nerves.
I was definitely making better time on the interstate than I had been. On the side roads, I might be tooling along at 40 or 50 when I’d round a curve and find a crash blocking most of the two lanes. It’d take a few minutes to scout out the path, or maybe nudge a car out of the way before I could get around. Up on the freeway, there seemed to be fewer major blockages, and I could see them from farther away. I figured I was averaging about 25 miles an hour on the back roads, and probably 45 or so on the interstate.
About an hour after leaving the rest stop, I saw my first traffic on the interstate. I’d gone the entire trip without seeing any cars on the side roads. The truck, a battered and weatherworn Toyota pickup, tooled along pretty steadily in the southbound lanes, a blue cloud of exhaust smoke following it. We waved to each other as we passed, but neither one of us seemed inclined to stop and chat. I just wanted to get to Doylestown, and they may well have been worried about getting the truck rolling again if he’d stopped.
Traffic was pretty heavy between Martinsburg and Hagerstown. Well, at least the stopped and wrecked vehicles were heavy. That old pickup seemed to have broken a logjam of sorts loose, and about every twenty minutes or so I saw another vehicle. Everybody was southbound though, which almost made me question the wisdom of my trip. It was like all those ads for “The Walking Dead” that showed all of the traffic backed up in one direction and a lone car headed into the big city.
It was starting to get dark as I pushed my way through Hagerstown and on into Pennsylvania. I found a little inn just south of Chambersburg that had lights on, and when I pulled in, they actually had someone at the front desk. Minion had calmed down quite a bit from his scare earlier in the afternoon, so he was quite eager to follow me into the lobby.
“Hey, there. Welcome to Chambersburg. I bet you don’t have a reservation,” said the lanky blonde at the front desk.
I smiled as I leaned against the counter. “No, I’m afraid I don’t. Are you gonna tell me you guys are booked solid?”
“You’d be surprised. We’re actually doing a pretty good business tonight. I do have a few rooms left though. Just the two of you?”
“Yep just me and Minion. Do you guys have a pet fee?”
She snickered. Her name tag said “Lizzie.” “Ordinarily, yes. But he’s such a good-looking and well-behaved dog that I’ll waive it for you guys.” Minion had gone to a Sit as soon I got to the counter, then laid down. “It’s fifty bucks for the night. Cash only, I’m afraid.”
I was now very glad I’d thought to get some cash the day I left. I handed over enough to cover the night. “Are there any restaurants open around here right now? Or is there some way I can cook some food in the room?”
Lizzie shook her head. “Nothing in the rooms, and we don’t even have a microwave because we don’t do breakfast here. The nearest restaurant is the Nutcracker Diner about half a mile away, but I don’t think anyone there survived.” We were both quiet for a minute. “But we do have a grill out back if you want to cook something on that. Have to find your own firewood or charcoal though.” She slid the key across the counter. “You’re in 112, just down the other side of the building. Checkout’s at noon tomorrow.”
“You know, you’re the first person I’ve seen in a day, and you’re pretty young, and you seem very nonchalant about everything that’s happened. It’s very surprising.”
She looked down at her computer keyboard. I almost didn’t notice she was crying until the first tears dripped from her face. She shrugged before looking up at me. “I lost everybody. So I came on in here and told my boss that I didn’t have any reason to go home. Grabbed some stuff. Moved into a room. I didn’t see any point in going home.”
I felt like an idiot for my comment about her being nonchalant. What do you say to someone who’s lost everything?
Then again, I still didn’t know what I had lost.
“I’m very sorry for your loss. And I’m very sorry for upsetting you.”
She sniffled and wiped her nose. Shrugged again. “It’s okay,” she said. “You’re actually the first person who’s really remarked about it. I tended to bottle things up pretty well even before this happened. But thank you.”
Minion and I headed to the room and got a few things moved in. The back of the truck was still not as organized as I would have liked it, but I didn’t really feel like messing with it right now. I was in an odd little zone of being almost exhausted from being on the road along with being nervous about not having heard from Hannah all day. I had tried calling her two other times during the day and both calls had gone straight to voicemail. I had texted her both times as well with no response. I decided that rather than hassle with the grill outside and having to heat up water for freeze-dried meals, that I would just nibble on some snacks that I had. That way I could get the laptop set up in the room and do some more research into what I was going to be dealing with as I got closer to Doylestown.
Half an hour later, I wasn’t in a much better mood. I couldn’t find any indication that any of my family members had been active on social media at all in the last couple of days. Hannah made one post the day before, but nothing in the last twenty-four hours. I sent her a Facebook message to go along with the calls and texts earlier. Maybe one of these will get through.
I spent a good long while trying to get more information about conditions in Philadelphia. Doylestown was north of the city and my choices for getting there involved either going through the outskirts of Philadelphia, or heading further north and coming down from Allentown. I suspected the latter was going to be a better choice, just because everything I’d read in the past suggested that larger cities were going to be dealing with greater turmoil than the more rural areas. Then again, Allentown wasn’t exactly a rural area. I thought I remembered that its population had been over 120,000 before the die-off. I couldn’t get a good handle on how many had survived in the area though.
Joe Caughey called me a little bit later, without any real updates to offer. “I’ve talked to two of my ham operators, but they haven’t heard anything back on their locate requests. I guess people are burning up the radio waves with those though. Seems like for a long time people forgot about the ham network and they’re rediscovering it now. You haven’t heard back on anything you’ve done though, right?”
“Right, and it’s got me a little nervous. Plus, I can’t really get a good reading on the best way to get from here to there right now.” We talked for a bit about what I would likely be facing, and he agreed with my Allentown route.
“Allentown may be a pretty good-sized city, but it’s mostly a blue-collar city and it’s pretty rural around there. I’d guess that the folks that survived around Allentown and Bethlehem are doing better than the folks that survived around Philadelphia.” We planned to talk about the same time tomorrow unless I had news sooner.
By now it was 9 o’clock, and I felt like I should be trying to get to bed so I could get an early start in the morning. But I wasn’t really tired and then I realized that I had changed time zones earlier in the day. My phone had updated itself, but the truck hadn’t and neither had my body’s clock. I looked at Minion who had crashed out on the other bed. “Maybe I’ll call Rory and see what’s going on back in Jasper.” The dog raised his head, looked at me for just a second, then plopped his head back on the bed and closed his eyes. He had clearly had enough of today.
Rory and I talked for about fifteen minutes. Things hadn’t changed much down there. Rami and Stephanie Diaz had determined that Stephanie could indeed designate him as the new sheriff, so she did so. DeSilva wasn’t having it, claiming that because he was the last surviving deputy, it should fall to him by natural promotion. Rory didn’t think many people in the county were going to support DeSilva. “Plus, there’s a lot of rumors going around about what happened at the jail.”
“That doesn’t surprise me in the least,” I said. “It’s like I told Rami that day. He was the last one I saw there, he had a gun, and when I got back, everyone who had been alive had been shot to death. Sure, nobody’s got the time or the know-how to run forensics right now probably, but even the circumstantial evidence is pretty damning.”
Rory agreed. “By the way, that kid you dropped off with Rami and Sylvia is apparently doing really well.”
“Yeah. A doctor and a couple of paramedics survived and they’ve been trying to run a clinic out of the hospital. Or at least get organized enough to run one. They were able to take some pictures of his arm and figure out that his elbow was dislocated. They’ve got it back in place and healing. Doc said in an ideal world, he’d have several weeks of physical therapy, but that he should be basically okay after a few weeks in a sling.”
Well, that was some good news. We chatted for another minute and said goodbye. Then I finally decided to quit avoiding the obvious and try to make contact with my ex-wife.
I was less than twenty miles from where Karen and Ben lived, just on the other side of Gettysburg. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch for me to drive through there and then swing back up 15 into Harrisburg. I wasn’t hopeful that they’d survived, but I felt like I owed it to Hannah to find out before I picked her up.
If I pick her up.
I called all four numbers I had for them: personal cell phones, the ranger station that Ben worked from, and the store Karen worked part-time at. No answer at any of them. The cell phones went to voicemail, so I left messages. The other numbers just rang and rang.
Copyright © 2019 Bob Mueller
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