The drive continued silently for a while, with Stacey pushing herself as close as she could to the door in the back seat. Jon glanced over a couple of times, thinking about saying something and then thinking better of it. Angela tried repeatedly to find a connection with her phone, but to no avail. David and Lawrence took turns manning the radio dial, taking great care to change the station should something inappropriately cheerful come on. The going became slower the further North they went, dispelling any notion they had beaten the panic. Initially, they were alone on the road between most exits, with only the trees, rolling hills and truck stop billboards to keep them company.
“Notice anything weird?” David asked.
“You mean besides everyone we’ve seen suffocating to death?” Lawrence snapped in return.
“Yeah, besides that, dickhead. You been listening to the radio?”
“I mean, kind of, mostly just to make sure some bubblegum pop filth isn’t coming through.”
“That’s the thing, though, its all been music. No commercials, no station ID, no DJ interludes, just the automated playlist.”
“If it weren’t for the outbreak, I’d say we just hit a new golden age of radio.” Angela chimed in from the seat behind Lawrence.
Later, as the sun began to fall, they would find clusters of vehicles clogging every exit, some even attempted to drive up the grassy hills to roads passing over the highway. The going went much slower, with Lawrence carefully navigating through a sea of steel and glass, nicking the sides of his Blazer with sharp whines and scrapes from metal meeting metal. They even had to brave the ditch between the highway to get through Flint, and at one point a wheel got stuck. Stacey broke her silence to express a desire to volunteer for the accelerator portion, while everyone else pushed, in spite of Lawrence’s protests. When the wheel escaped its silty prison, they were muddy and sweaty, but moving forward again. Jon and David funneled what was left from the spare gas cannisters into the tank. There were no tear-stricken fathers on this leg of the journey. Either no one felt it worth the time to accost them, or there was no one left to do so.
David leaned back in his seat and shut his eyes, when he did, the gooseflesh gripped him again. There was no dream of suffocation, but this time he saw flumes of smoke rising from a bridge and the slamming of a steel hatch. He shot up in his seat, earning a puzzled look from the rest of the passengers, but dismissed it as dozing off for a second. He saw signs for Bay City, clicked a light on and opened his map. Their journey up I-75 was at an end, with M-25 taking them East to Unionville, where the grow house resided.
They spent as much time driving alongside M-25 as on it, with two lanes giving little room to maneuver between the stalled vehicles. Some had open windows, and when the headlights illuminated the interior, they saw static figures with some mold or lichen substance creeping up their necks and cheeks. Just like the kind David saw on the girl from the hospital exit. Instinctively, they all covered their noses and mouths when passing the larger clusters of cars. Sometimes they would see families huddled together or sitting in a line. Heads bowed, eyes open, but the flicker that filled them was gone. Only the lichen remained alive in those tableaus. The rest of the night was still, save for the bugs and bats.
A couple miles ahead, a bridge was lit up. The first lights they’d seen since the sun went down, excepting the head lamps of the Blazer and a few office buildings. As they crept closer, the cars began to part from the center of the road and were clustered around the sides. In front of them, the road was blocked by two pickups pushed together grill to grill, behind them an RV was parked off to one side. A yellow flag hung off the top of the RV, with a coiled snake and the words “Don’t Tread On Me” emblazoned along the bottom. Two men were seated around a small fire pit, a third sat on the hood of one pick-up and a fourth in the bed of the second. As the Blazer approached, two more came from the RV bearing rifles. A closer look at the men on the pick-ups revealed that each had a holstered pistol. The pair leaped down and walked up to the Blazer as Lawrence pulled to a stop. In the glare of the headlights he could see one of them had a bushy mustache and was chewing some dip, the other had a toothpick in his mouth and was garbed in flannel cut-offs. The mustachioed man spat, then approached the driver side window.
“This here stretch of M-25 is under the protection of the Michigan Militia, 6th division. I don’ think I need to tell ya we’re under quarantine.” He pronounced the last syllable like “line”. “Y’all carryin’ any infected?” He spat again on the street, one hand over his pistol.
“No, just looking to pass through.” Lawrence responded, his eyes focused in front of him at the four men leaning on the truck beds leering at them.
The chewing man pulled out a flashlight and shined it on everyone in the car, lingering on Stacey, while the flannel man paced around the back of the SUV. “That’s good, ain’t seen anyone passin’ through in a coupla hours. ‘Course, things bein’ what they are, this little bridge’s got a toll. Only way up to the thumb tip for the length of the Quincasse, what with Old State Bridge bein’ out. Money won’t do no good, but food, water and bullets might do us just fine.”
“How much do you want?” David asked from the passenger seat.
“How much ya got?” He spat, plastering a cocksure grin on his face. ” ‘Course, if that don’t work, we might make do with a little quality time.” Stacey’s face was again illuminated by the flashlight, it bore the expression of someone who was just told their steak dinner was actually dog.
“I think we’ll need a few minutes to decide.” Lawrence replied, his icy glare matched by his fellow passengers.
“Sure, sure, we ain’t goin’ nowhere.” The chewing man and his cohort strode off to lean on the front side of the pick-ups, leaning on his heels and notching his thumbs in the belt loops of his pants. Lawrence backed the Blazer up several hundred feet. They got out and began conversing behind the SUV.
“There is no way in hell I’m letting any of those creeps touch me,” Stacey declared, folding her arms.
“Word. I’ll take my chances with trying to bust through over that.” Angela agreed.
“There has to be another way around,” Stacey looked to David, who was fumbling with his map and a flash light.
“Assuming they’re telling the truth about the Old State bridge being out, we’re gonna have to go pretty far South and I only know the way from M-25. Not only that, we’re running out of gas. This is our best shot to get through, and it shouldn’t be more than an hour to get underground if we do get past them. I think I’ve got an idea, though. Ang, can you get the smoke grenades?” David thought back to his brief dream on the ride up, it felt like a hint. Angela opened the trunk and returned with the case. “Okay, everybody take a few of these. Here’s the plan: Stacey, I know you’re gonna hate this, but I need you to pretend that you’re selling a few favors for passage. Lawrence and I are gonna sneak around to the other side of the river over there, looks like we can sneak around the back of the bar and end up behind them. Ang, you drive the truck through when they open up, Jon can stand through the roof and make sure they don’t pull anything.”
“When you say anything, you mean what it sounds like we’re about to do?” Jon inquired.
“Basically, yeah. So once the truck is through, get Stacey back inside and Lawrence and I’ll start chucking smoke bombs. Once we’re in, start tossing yours. Its looking pretty congested on the other side of the bridge, it’ll be tough going to follow us through that. Sound good?”
“You’re right, I definitely hate this. Can’t someone else be bait? How do I know you’re not just gonna ditch me once they let us through?” She argued.
“I’m not going to let that happen.” Jon stated resolutely.
“Me either, Stace, Jon’s got his gun, but I got a surprise for’em if they pull anything.” Angela produced her pipe bomb.
“Yeah, but just…ugh! I could smell his breath from the backseat.” Stacey mimed gagging herself.
“I’m with you on the gross factor, but this sounds like our best shot. We’re not gonna let them do anything and you’re a little too cute to leave behind.” Angela winked and nudged Stacey with her elbow, but it did little to remove the disgust from her face.
Stacey paced for a moment, sat down, buried her face in her hands, then stood up again with her face bearing a stern expression. “Okay, okay, I’ll do it. I don’t want to keep driving through tomorrow. You all owe me for this, first dibs on food. Period. Got it?” She returned her arms to a folded position and stamped a foot down.
“Fair’s fair, Stacey. Thanks. Give Lawrence and I about ten minutes to get around and then head in. Also, I gotta trade ya, they’ll be too on guard if you go in strapped.” David handed her his hunting knife, she was reluctant to give up the pistol, but sighed and relented, tucking the knife on the back of her pants and covering it with her camisole.
Lawrence walked over to Angela and handed her the keys. “Not a scratch, okay?”
“Pfft, like you’d be able to tell.” She waved her arm over the shredded paint on the sides.
“Hey, shouldn’t we like…put our hands in a circle or something? My team always did that before something big. You know, for good luck.” Stacey offered before Lawrence and David walked off.
“That sounds pretty cheesy.” Lawrence objected.
“Come off it, we’re a team now, couldn’t hurt.” Angela retored
“We could use all the luck we can get.” Jon agreed.
“Guess that settles it, everybody in. You too, Lawrence.” David marshalled them, Lawrence tisked at first, but eventually relented. They gathered in a circle, then stood, furtively glancing at each other.
“Uhh…go Ducks?” David muttered.
“C’mon, we can’t use that,” Jon replied.
“I got one, ‘please don’t die’,” Lawrence said.
“And no creeps getting handsy,” Angela added.
“A-men!” Said Stacey in a hushed tone, the circle broke. Lawrence and David walked off the road and towards the reeds and weeping willows lining the banks of the river. They kicked off their shoes and tip-toed in. The water was frigid, and went up to their chest at its deepest. David bit his lip to avoid crying out, but at least it was running fast enough to cover the sound of their splashing. The slimy rocks along the bed felt like walking over a tray of ice cubes. They made it behind the bar, and could see the back end of the RV from the bridge when peering around the corner. David checked his watch, they still had five minutes.
“Are you sure this flanking thing is a good idea?” Lawrence whispered. “I mean, I know we jumped that frat douche one time in the alley when he tried to slink off with a half, but he just bolted. These guys are gonna hit back, or worse, shoot.”
“I think it’ll work, we’d be a way easier target with everyone in the car. Keep that blade out, I’m gonna go take a another look.” The hushed tone help disguise the quaver in David’s voice as he tried to project confidence. He drew the pistol and walked to the edge of the building, his eyes too focused ahead to see his feet, which kicked a metal rain pail from under the bar’s gutter. It clanged as it rolled across the nearby concrete. David gulped as he shrank back against the bar wall.
“‘Ey? The hell was that?” The chewing man barked from the bridge, he received silence in response. “Clem, go check it out.”
“C’mon, ‘s prob’ly just a dog.” A man clad in an American flag tank top stepped forward, presumably Clem.
“If we’re lucky, but maybe it ain’t. Take a gun if yer that scurred.” He spat.
Clem gave him a sour glance and grabbed a pistol off their card table, then trudged towards the bar. “My daddy bought the guns so you gotsta do what I say,” he muttered in a mocking, reedy drawl, spitting at the end in imitation of the chewing man. Behind the bar, Lawrence and David were trading salvos of harsh whispers.
“No way am I hiding in the doorway, you’re the one who kicked the bucket! I’ll get behind the crates.”
“I’ve got the gun, it makes sense I’m further away. Besides, isn’t this why you’re wearing a dark cloak?”
Lawrence opened his mouth, but couldn’t find a retort. Instead, he shrank back into the shadow of the doorway, his middle finger being the last to leave the moon’s illumination. David clicked the safety off his pistol and dashed behind the crates. Clem approached gingerly, first hollering for anyone there to show themselves, then poking the bucket with his foot. Sweat dripped from David’s brow as he shakily clutched the pistol. Please don’t find Lawrence, please don’t find Lawrence. He thought as he craned his neck from the wall of boxes. Clem was only ten feet from the doorway, and stepping closer. Two steps, and another “Anybody there?” shout. Two more steps, a gust of wind stirred the rain pail. One step and two arms shot out from the threshold, one over Clem’s mouth and the flash of a blade resting against his neck. Pounding noises emanated from the doorway and a flurry of arms shot out like tendrils from the shadows. David dashed out, pointing the gun at Clem’s head and holding a finger over his mouth. That same finger pointed to the pistol, then David’s palm opened. Clem’s eyes were saucer wide, but he complied, dropping his gun into David’s outstretched hand.
“No noise, or I shoot.” David whispered in command, Clem nodded and he was released.
Lawrence walked out from the threshold rubbing his side. “Coulda done without the elbows, asshole.” Blood formed in small cuts on his feet where Clem’s boots stamped him. “Really shoulda grabbed our shoes…”
Minutes before, Angela, Stacey and Jon were resting along the front of the Blazer. “Anybody got a watch?” Jon asked, they both shook their heads. “Damn, how many Mississippis is it to get to ten minutes?”
“Six hundred.” Stacey replied tersely, she had been spending the past few moments clenching and unclenching her fists, then wiping the sweat on her pants before repeating the cycle.
“Hey, something’s happening up there!” Angela called out, noting Clem’s departure from the group.
“That’s gotta be our cue.” John said, hopping in the backseat and poking his head through the moon roof, rifle slung over his shoulder. Angela sat in the driver’s seat with Stacey walking in front as the Blazer crept toward the barricade of pick-up trucks.
“I can’t believe I agreed to this.” Stacey said over her shoulder.
“Me either, but we got your back.” Angela replied, poking her head out from the driver side window.
As Stacey approached, one of the men climbed into a truck and backed it just far enough to let one person through. Stacey remained still at the entrance.
“Hey, you’re gettin’ what you wanted, now let us through!” Angela yelled. The man in the pick-up looked to the chewing man, who gave an ‘after you’ gesture and the truck backed up wide enough to let the Blazer through. It rolled until it reached the the back end of the RV and idled. The chewing man strode over to Stacey with a devious grin plastered on his face.
“Interesting friends you got there,” He chided, looking her up and down. She had her head bowed, shivering, with one hand clasping her arm from across her back. She flinched when he drew his face closer. “Relax little lady, if you’re good, you’ll be on your way in an hour. ‘less o’course ya end up likin’ us better.” He chuckled.
“Please don’t hurt me, they said this was the only way to cross.” Stacey voice developed a strong quaver, and she twirled the toes of her shoe in the pavement, eyes never meeting the chewing man’s gaze.
“Aw hell, ‘ol Stanley ain’t gonna do ya like that, this here’s a fair exchange a’ goods n services.” He ran his hand under her chin and raised her head, she tried to keep looking away.
“Hey Stan, ain’t there s’posed t’be two more’a them?” A cohort called out, eyeing Jon and Angela in the truck.
“Yeah, and Clem should be back too. What’re ya tryna pull?” Stanley grabbed Stacey’s arm and shook her.
“Let her go!” Yelled Jon, training his rifle at Stanley. The latter’s cohorts pointed theirs right back at him.
“Careful you ain’t signin’ a check yer ass can’t cash.” Stanley replied, pulling Stacey in front of him. “Even if you got the balls to pull the trigger, sure ’bout yer aim?” He taunted.
“Hey, asshole! I think we got a better currency.” David and Lawrence emerged from behind the bar. They were leading Clem with a gun to his head, arms raised and a trickle of urine staining the inseam of his jeans. The gravel cut into their bare feet. A couple of Stanley’s cohorts switched their aim from Jon to them. Only Angela, who had crept behind the RV with the pipe bomb, wasn’t staring down a barrel.
“Jesus Clem, you let a coupl’a kids whoop ya like that? Think I’m better off with the girl. C’mon.” Stanley wrenched Stacey’s arm to drag her toward the RV.
“Let. Me. GO!” She shouted, brandishing the hunting knife and digging it into Stanley’s forearm. He cried out a yelp and his arm betrayed him, releasing her.
“Come mierda!” Angela yelled, lighting the fuse for her pipe bomb and lobbing it between the front of the RV and the rear of the pick-up. Steam shot out from the RV’s engine as shrapnel tore through it. Metal screeched and the rear tires hissed as they were punctured. Jon shot one cohort in the arm and ducked down as glass shattered inside the blazer, closing his eyes as shards rained over him. Stanley fell over from a pair of shrapnel spikes embedded in his back. Stacey tried to run, but a shard was buried in her calf and she fell forward.
David kicked Clem forward and started shooting wildly at the four cohorts left, who ducked behind the other pick-up. Lawrence hunched over, fiddling with his lighter for the smoke grenades. It took a few turns, but the wicks lit and crackled. He hurled four at the truck, orange and blue smoke streamed from the fireworks, glittering in the streetlight. Bullets cut through the hazy curtain, but mercifully soared overhead. David fired back until his clip was empty, then Lawrence started his salvo as they strafed back to the Blazer, at half a hop because their feet were cut. Lawrence leaped into the driver seat, with David sliding across the hood.
Angela dashed to Stacey, tossing a few of her smoke bombs along the way. Getting an arm over Angela’s shoulder, the pair made a three legged run to the back of the Blazer. Jon kept firing at the wall of colored smoke in front of the pick-up, sweat mixed with bits of glass running down the sides of his head. His arm was grazed by a stray shot, and a blood stain seeped down from the sleeve of his T-shirt. He fell back on the edge of the moon roof, dropping his rifle in pain. David held the door as Angela tossed Stacey in the side before hopping in herself. Slamming it shut, David hopped through the front passenger window and Lawrence slammed on the accelerator, dropping the remaining smoke bombs in their wake.
“My leg!” Stacey howled as blood ran from the wound in her calf. Lawrence pulled over after a couple miles of driving and she laid across the back seat with Jon and Angela shining flashlights on her leg.
“Black backpack, front pocket, got some gauze in there!” Lawrence yelled as he tried to keep her from convulsing in pain. David rooted through the trunk until he produced a roll of gauze and disinfectant. “Okay, Jon, keep up the light. Ang, hold her steady. Dave, hold the wrap out and get ready. Stace…bite this, it’ll help.” He held a folded leather belt in front of her face and she clamped down. On a count of three, Lawrence wrenched an inch of twisted steel dyed crimson from her calf. Discarding it, David wrapped the bandages while Stacey dug into the leather, her teeth leaving a crescent of dents.
After a collective sigh of relief, the drive continued, though no one could calm their hearts from racing. The sun was beginning to peak over the trees as they pulled into Unionville. David directed them down a winding dirt road until they turned into a long gravel driveway for 616 Seagull Ave. A faux log cabin greeted their entrance, with shutters closed and no sign of an occupant. He felt another pit in his stomach, if any of his family made it, they would be here. To the right of the house was a large boulder, he waved Jon over and together they heaved. On a hidden hinge, the boulder lifted to reveal it was hollow on the inside and a large metal hatch was underneath. Turning it open, stone steps descended into darkness beyond the threshold. David clicked on his flashlight and went down. Lawrence and Angela hesitated before following, while Jon carried Stacey piggyback.
“Well, its not the prettiest, but we’ve got a big freezer, some gennies and a water purifier.” David directed, highlighting the machines with his flashlight. “Over here’s the farm, just gonna need to do some recalibrating for actual food.” He pointed out several rows of hydroponic equipment. “But the important part is, we’re all here. Thank you, for believing me. I don’t think any one of us could’ve made it without everyone else.”
“It wasn’t that hard to believe, if anyone would know, its Doomsday Dave.” Angela chided.
“I’ll accept being carried until my leg heals as thanks.” Stacey said, leaning gingerly on the edge of a couch.
“I got a funny feelin’ I’ll be doing a lot of the carrying.” Jon lamented.
“Hey man, we needed you too, not everyone gets to ride this out in a bunker.” Lawrence put an arm on David’s shoulder. “I don’t suppose you kept an extra pair of shoes for us, didja?”
“No, but there’s a lot of pairs out there that won’t be missed.”