I drove past the Exxon after I left Rory’s place, and Damion wasn’t there.
I was only a little concerned. The kid seemed to be pretty street-smart, so I doubted he’d done anything completely stupid. Plus, I hadn’t seen more than two other cars moving about. I wasn’t sure what the actual death toll was, but I wasn’t expecting to find more than a hundred or so people left in town. Statistically, the odds were against a large number of those people wanting to do harm to others, and the odds were even smaller that one of those few bad actors would find him. Still, I had gotten just a little attached to him in the few minutes we’d talked.
I headed to Walmart.
The same cars and trucks seemed to be in the lot, although both the black man’s and the Latina girl’s bodies had been moved. The man’s body just looked like someone had gone through his pockets, but the girl had been moved over to the side of the entrance, and her arms had been crossed over her chest.
Minion and I made a quick circuit around the outside aisles. Even though I’d just told myself how relatively safe things were likely to be in a relatively safe town to begin with, I didn’t feel like calling out to Damion. I wasn’t sure he’d answer me anyway, for the same reasons. After twenty fruitless minutes, we got back in the car and went truck shopping.
The big question in my mind was gas or diesel. I knew both fuels had a fairly short shelf life, but I never really knew how long that shelf life was. I’d spent a little time last night researching the question, and I didn’t find anything definitive. Some sites said as short as thirty days for diesel fuel, and others said as long as two years for gas.
I ended up deciding on gas simply because I knew gas engines were just a little bit simpler than diesels. I’d never owned a diesel before, so I didn’t know what kind of regular maintenance they needed, and I wasn’t going to be able to call roadside assistance, so I stuck with what I knew. Fortunately, Jasper’s Chevy dealer was right next door to the Ford dealer, and they were both on my way home.
The sun was just setting when I finally pulled into my driveway. I only needed fifteen minutes to pick out a truck, but it took me over half an hour to figure out where the keys were and break into the cabinet. Then I decided I wanted the Subaru at the house, so I had to drive it back and unload everything, then drive Kevin’s Toyota back to the dealership and trade it for the truck.
I’d originally chosen a brand-new Silverado 3500, but then a used truck caught my eye. A three-year-old Silverado, it had both a brush guard and a bed topper, which none of the newer trucks had. It had four-wheel drive and the tires looked like they had plenty of tread left. The topper would protect the extra gear I’d be carrying, so I wouldn’t have to cram everything in the cab. And I liked blue.
I decided to live it up a bit for dinner and pulled a couple of steaks out of the freezer. I didn’t know what conditions were going to be like on the road, so I wanted us to have one good meal before we took off.
After dinner, I headed out to the garage to take stock of everything that I had gathered during the day. It was a little overwhelming to see everything piled on the floor, especially when I realized that pile didn’t include everything. I still needed to add some clothes, my sleeping bag and tent, and the rest of the camping gear that I had there in the garage. I was shifting one of the piles for the third time when Hannah called. “Are you doing okay?”
“So far, yeah. One of my neighbors survived. It’s Monica, that one girl that I told you about who gave me so much grief when she saw me and Ciera. But she’s the only person I’ve seen so far. How are things down there? Are you leaving tomorrow?
“I think so, but I’m not sure exactly when. I’m trying to get things organized and right now my piles are a huge mess. I’m probably gonna need to make one more trip to Walmart to get some tubs to organize things. It may not be until tomorrow afternoon that I finally hit the road. You gonna be okay for a few more days?”
She sniffled a few times before answering “I guess so. I don’t know that I really have a choice do I?” A laugh slipped out. “How’s Minion handling all of this?”
“He seems to be doing okay, for the most part. I think he was a little confused about what was going on with Kevin but while we were out and about today, he seemed to be trying to console a couple of people that we ran into. It was really kind of strange because I’ve never seen him do that before.” We talked about a few more things, like what kind of clothes she should pack.
“What are we going to do after you get up here, Daddy?”
“That’s a good question, kiddo, and I don’t really know. I can’t think of many good reasons to come back to Jasper.” I ran through all of the arguments I had mentioned to Rory earlier. “So I don’t really know where to go, but I think we need to get you out of the city. Major urban centers are probably not going to be all that safe for the next few months.”
“Right now you’ve got a whole bunch of dead bodies in a very concentrated area, and nobody to take care of them.” I wasn’t trying to be abrupt, but I didn’t want to come right out and explain in detail what was going to happen.
“What? Oh.” She seemed to catch on.
“Plus you’re going to be fairly limited in where you can grow food, and I don’t know what the water supply is going to be like in a few months. Everything seems to be running right now, but I don’t know how much regular maintenance those systems all need.”
“So we could just settle anywhere, right?”
“In theory, yes. I’m going to make a pass through Portsmouth to check on everybody there, but after that, we could pretty much go anywhere.”
“What about Mom? Can we look for Mom?” Her voice was barely a whisper now.
“Absolutely, kiddo. We’ll go by her place and her office, and see what we can find.” I was reasonably certain that none of the rest of our family members had survived, but I wasn’t going to take that hope away from her right now. We talked for a few more minutes, and then I begged off so that I could get back to work on loading the truck, hoping I could get a decent start on the road tomorrow. Neither one of us really seemed to want to hang up.
It took me another half an hour to get things organized the way I wanted them. I’d have to stop by Walmart or Lowe’s for some more plastic tubs, but I could do that on my way out. I also needed to stop and fill up the gas can for the chainsaw, and pick up a couple of larger spare gas cans for the truck. I didn’t want to carry so much gas that I would be a rolling bomb, but I wanted to have at least enough to get me fifty or sixty miles if I needed it.
By rights, I should have headed to bed at this point. I had a long trip ahead of me, and there was no way of knowing how well I’d be able to sleep while we were on the road. I was too restless to settle down though. My normal evening routine involved Netflix or something like that running in the background while I cruised Facebook or some of the writing forums. I couldn’t settle down though, couldn’t stop thinking. I couldn’t really focus on anything for more than thirty seconds.
I tried mapping out my trip but started getting frustrated at how slow my internet connection was – which meant waiting an extra quarter of a second for the page to download. I managed to get the directions printed out before jumping up from my desk to storm off into another pacing lap of the house.
I made it out into the living room where I caught a glimpse of a photo of me and all three of the kids. Hannah had showed up for a surprise visit last summer when Taylor had been down, and we’d had a bonfire in the back yard. Kevin’s girlfriend Ashley had snapped a pro-quality shot of the four of us, with Minion at my feet. The lighting had been perfect, with the sunset off to the side and the firelight just filling in the shadows. I couldn’t stop the tears even if I’d wanted.
A baseball trophy, one of several Kevin had won over the years, sat next to the photo. I never could figure out where he’d picked up his love of the game, but he’d made the varsity baseball team as a sophomore, and I couldn’t have been more proud of him. He played shortstop well enough that the Aggies and the Longhorns had looked at him as a junior. I stood there for a long moment, remembering all of the games I’d attended.
Then I wondered what the rest of the kids in the Jasper ISD were doing right now. Twenty-eight hundred students, give or take, and two hundred or so teachers – how many had survived? How many kids woke up to dead parents? What about the kindergarteners, and the rest of the young ones who couldn’t really take care of themselves? Who’d watch out for them?
I wandered into Kevin’s room, standing in the middle of the silence and emptiness. He should have been on his bed, propped up against the headboard, reading ESPN or Sports Illustrated, or tweaking some of his photography on his computer. He’d decided he didn’t want to play college baseball, but he was still focused on a sports-related career. He’d been talking to A&M about a combined program of sports management and communications that exhausted me just reading the course loads. It mapped out to almost six years, but Kevin had it planned so that he’d get it done in four-and-a-half by loading up with summer classes.
I sank to my knees there in the middle of his room.
Copyright © 2019 Bob Mueller
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, contact the publisher.