Manny parked the ATV next to Papa Rose’s and switched off the engine. The low grumbling faded into the soft rattle of the picks and shovels strapped to the back of his Gator. Dark spots dotted the deserted camp, all that remained of those who had died during the night. His gaze darted to the three stains where the old men had sat, across the wash from where the couple who had luggage full of cans and medicine and up to the shadowy remnants of families. The goatee kid from his school. Gone. The Latina who lugged a child that wasn’t hers for miles to reach Wheelchair Henry’s house. Dead. And the twin girls whose front teeth were missing. Dead.
Grief lodged in his throat and refused to be swallowed down.
One by one, he’d loaded their stiff bodies into the ATV’s trailer. Mildred and Connie had picked over their belongings, savaging what might prove useful for someone else. The silence in the black dawn had been unbearable.
Then the coughing and wheezing had started again.
His hands shook. Jesus Christ. The Redaction was back. How many would die this time? He scrubbed his nose on his sleeve and slid off the machine. Dirt plopped to the ground. He flinched. If he never heard the soft thud of dirt again…
“And this is the best part. The fire was coming in the front as we were heading out the back, our bags of dog and cat food safe.” Papa Rose thumped Manny on the chest as he walked to the back of the ATV. The bungee cords snapped open and pinged against the metal side. “Hey, kid, are you listening?”
Kid. Swaying slightly on his feet, Manny closed his eyes. The image of the dead–the stiff, black hands, the small bundles with faces covered by their shirts because they couldn’t spare blankets or jackets, and the cold rubbery flesh with lifeless open eyes They’d been the worst. The ones he’d hesitated slinging dirt on.
What if they’d been in some kind of freak coma?
“Kid!” Papa Rose snapped his fingers.
Manny opened his eyes.
Dirt crescents trimmed the man’s fingernails. “That’s it. Focus on me, kid.”
He shoved his fingers through his stiff hair, felt the burn across his skull as he pulled some strands loose. “I’m not a kid.”
Papa Rose’s brown eyes crinkled above his blue mask. “That’s it, get angry. Anger helps to deal with senseless loss.”
“Leave me alone.” Manny shoved at the bald man.
The guy didn’t budge. “Not yet, Manny. You need to talk about it.”
If the man wanted to be an ass, he didn’t have to stick around. There were other ways to reach the group. Manny clenched his fists and pivoted about. “No. I don’t.”
Falcon adjusted the dusty covering over his black hair and stepped into Manny’s path, boxing him between the ATVs. “What was the worst thing about graveyard duty? A shirt slid back on one woman’s face. Reminded me of my momma and I had to sling dirt right on her face.”
Manny plugged his ears with his fingers. He didn’t have to listen to this. He didn’t.
“Not that.” Papa Rose edged closer. “It was the hollow thud the dirt made as it hit those swollen bellies. Sounded just like a drum. Except sometimes they exploded.”
“Shut up!” He rocked back and forth. Hot tears ran down his cheeks and his nose pricked before it ran. Neither washed away the images the two men’s words conjured. Nor the thousand or so others stuffing his head.
Falcon grasped Manny’s wrists and uncovered his ears. “Is it how black the bodies become from the pooled blood? Or the bugs devouring your friends right before your eyes?”
Anger roiled through him like a rampaging beast, heating him from the inside out. He had to get away. Manny twisted and turned his arms, but couldn’t break the man’s grip. “Leave me alone!”
Papa Rose snapped his fingers. “It was the children.”
Manny stiffened. The rage vanished, leaving him hollowed out and brittle. A hot wind scoured his exposed skin, whittling away his soul, nothing remained behind.
“The little bodies were wrapped up tight, but you could see their faces, couldn’t you?” Papa Rose grabbed his shoulders. “They were your brothers and sisters. They were…”
To Manny’s surprise, his bones didn’t shatter into dust. “Don’t say it,” he pleaded.
“They were the ninos.”
“Oh, God.” Manny’s legs buckled and fat tears rolled one after the other. Every tiny corpse had been Lucia, Mikey, Mary and Jose. He’d seen Rini in a thin body and Henry in the white hair sticking out of a shirt. But they were alive and safe. All of them. They had to be.
Papa Rose wrapped his arms around Manny and helped him to sit on the ATV. “Sorry to push you so hard but we couldn’t have you breaking down in front of the others.”
Manny clung to him, pulling on his strength.
“Too many of them are sick.” Falcon released his wrists. “We need to make their last days as pleasant as possible.”
“I know.” Wiping his nose on his sleeve, Manny hiccoughed. God, he was such a baby, blubbering like this.
Falcon crouched in front of Manny and offered him a dusty handkerchief. “You’re a soldier, Manny, drafted in this war. A war we’re losing. Good people are dying for no reason.”
Manny blew his nose while swiping at the tears.
Squeezing Manny’s shoulder, Papa Rose pushed to his feet. “If you don’t let out that grief, it’ll fuck you up.”
“Stay here. Kick some tires, punch some chrome. Cry yourself dry.” Falcon adjusted his face mask. “Deal with the anger and frustration, and when you’re ready to talk about it, you can see either us or the Colonel.”
“Thanks.” Maybe. Crying seemed like a girly thing to do. Manny blew his nose again. Tears still leaked from his eyes.
The blurry figures of the two men were halfway up the row of parked ATVs when the German shepherd appeared. With his hackles raised, the dog faced east, bared his fangs and growled. Farther down the camp, dogs barked and a cat yowled.
“What the fuck!” Papa Rose eyed the dog before leaping on the seat of the Gator.
Manny heaved himself up. His sneakers sunk into the padded seat and he balanced on the balls of his feet so as not to fall off. About a mile away, flames devoured buildings and belched plumes of black smoke. Surrounded by fire on three sides, an empty field stretched between the fires and their camp. Instead of the expected green weeds, a black and brown tide swept down the growth. He blinked. “What’s wrong with the field?”
The German shepherd barked as a furry rat dashed out of the vegetation.
Why would one small rat cause the dog to bark? Hadn’t he ever seen them before? Manny had practically lived side-by-side with them for months. Except… His bones felt like ice under his skin. Except the brown and black field was thick with writhing, leaping bodies.
“Rats!” Falcon jumped to the ground in a puff of dust before grabbing the gasoline can from the rack in the back of the ATV. “We’ve got incoming!”
“Come on!” Papa Rose grabbed a second can. “We’ve got to protect the camp. Those damn rats will claw and bite anything in their path.”
Grabbing the last can, Manny chased after him. The barking dog ran beside him. Rini and Beth met them halfway
They reached the main camp just as two women and a golden retriever sprinted down the embankment. “Rats. Lots of them. Headed this way.”
“We’ve brought gasoline.” Liquid sloshed when Falcon raised the can. “We’ll build a fire around our ground, force them to go around.”
“It won’t work.” Henry adjusted his useless legs on the wagon while Mildred collapsed his wheelchair and heaved it onto the sacks of feed in the back. “They’re in too much of a panic. They’ll just race right through it.”
“So what do we do?
Henry tugged the walkie-talkie from his shirt pocket. “Take the ramp out of the wash and give the horses their head.”
“But the smoke?” Came the crackling reply.
“We’ve got incoming.”
Dust mingled with the thick smoke marking the progress of what remained of their group. Half a mile left from one that had straggled four miles yesterday. So many people lost… Shaking off his thoughts, Manny watched the lead wagon rattle up the dirt ramp onto the access road running parallel to the wash.
“Rats.” Henry said.
“About two miles wide and more than that deep.” Papa Rose panted.
“Did you copy that?” Henry again.
“Copy that. We’re heading for the firewall. I pray we’ll make it through before we dip down into the river bottom again.” The lead wagon picked up speed then another lurched out of the wash. One by one the four wagons exited. Then came the people riding double and triple on horseback. And the bicyclists.
“Where do you want us, Colonel?” Falcon asked.
“Make torches and place the ATVs between the people on foot and the rats.”
Mildred climbed into the back holding the small dogs, the cats and kittens, the ninos and a few sick. With a crack of the whip, the wagon lurched forward.
Manny followed the charge back to the ATV’s, Rini and Beth at his heels. He skidded to a stop on the stones. “How are we going to make torches?”
Papa Rose jerked a shovel off the back of the ATV. Next, he ripped off his shirt and wrapped it around the handle. “Like this.”
Shucking his hoody, Manny handed it to Rini then he removed his shirt. They finished their makeshift torches at the same time, and then stared at Papa Rose.
He tugged a lighter from his jeans and handed it to Beth. He held out his vest to Falcon. “Soak me down, man.”
Rats scrambled down the hill.
Above the squeaking, civilians shouted.
Tilting the gas can, Falcon doused the fabric with gas then moved on to the next one, then the next.
Manny blinked at the fumes.
Beth fumbled with the lighter. Each torch caught fire with a whoosh.
“Move out as soon as you’re good to go.” Papa Rose mounted his ATV, started the engine and took off across the wash. Everyone else scattered to their rides.
Manny jumped behind Rini as she started the Gator’s engine.
“Ready?” She tossed over her shoulder.
The ATV lurched forward joining the queue. The German shepherd and Golden Retriever raced beside them barking at the rats, catching a few in their teeth then flinging them in the air.
Manny swung his torch beside the vehicle. Through the dust ahead, he watched the last two wagons maneuver between the people and the rats.
Brown arrowed into the stream of people. Screams rent the air.
Shots rang out.
Manny grasped Rini around the waist as the ATV trundled over the rats. Flames flickered and heat licked his face. They maneuvered into the middle of the dozen ATVs. The motorcycles raced ahead and then fell back, blocking the people as best they could. Smoke thickened. The lead wagons and horsemen disappeared.
The brown wave slipped down the banks into the wash. Pink tails erect. Beady eyes glistened. He kept swinging the torch. Rodents screeched. The air filled with the pungent scent of burning hair and flesh. The ATV bumped over the vermin carpet as they swerved, swept along by the furry stream.
Rini leaned forward against the handlebars, steering them back to the others.
More screams sounded ahead. Gun shots rang out with greater frequency.
The German shepherd leapt onto the back basket. He snapped at the rodents, plucking one off Manny’s thigh and flinging it over his shoulder.
Manny moved the torch back and forth as they climbed the ramp. The seething carpet carried them to the edge, threatening to topple them into the wash. He reached around Rini. Gripping one handlebar, he helped turn the wheels on the backs of the vermin.
The fur carpet stretched for miles and bubbled up the hill. Ahead, a red wall of flames raced along the northern edge of the field. The vermin flew into a frenzy trampling each other. People went down under the mass. Here and there, a hand emerged, before it melted back into the sea of brown and the lump lay still.
The torches created red arcs but didn’t slow the rampage.
Manny kept swinging. Ahead, fire raced across the access road. The motorcycles surged through it. They darted to the side as the fire died down to reveal a large truck. Soldiers with flame throwers and guns stood in the bed of a truck as it backed toward the running people. Every once in a while, flames washed down the side and swept aside the rats climbing the tires.
The lead ATV slowed. A figure wearing rats from the waist down, threw himself across the boards on the back. Rats flew off him. The first ATV approached another person. The vermin tide swept him over the bank.
Soldiers lifted people into the bed of their truck, one after the other. Slowly, they cleared the main body. The stragglers lagged further and further behind. And their numbers were dwindling.
“We have to go faster!” Manny shouted.
The vehicle lurched forward.
The German shepherd leapt from the back of the Gator onto a rat-covered man as they passed. The man struggled to his feet. Manny watched Falcon slow long enough to pick both up.
Gunfire came in one uninterrupted burst now. Rat bodies bounced as they were hit by the bullets.
Manny flung the shovel aside as they approached a couple carrying a young child. The man swatted at the rats with a branch as they slogged forward.
“Them.” Manny pointed so Rini could see them.
Nodding, Rini slowed.
Rats clawed up his leg. Clenching his thighs tight, he reached for the woman.
The man stopped to throw her. She landed in the back and the ATV bucked in the front. Twisting in his seat, Manny slapped aside the rats on the bloody woman. The man went down on one knee. Rats swarmed over him.
A torch swept over the bunch and he lurched to his feet. The ATV driver stopped and dragged him from the sucking swell of vermin. Shaking off rats, they staggered to the vehicle and took off.
After tossing the last rat off the woman, Manny turned back around. Nothing but the carpet of rats undulated across the road. The soldiers’ truck began the bumpy ride forward with the ATVs close behind.
They zoomed through a line of fire and he almost pitched forward as Rini brought them to a quick stop.
Henry sat in the front of a supply truck. More trucks formed a line on the side of the road where soldiers with flame throwers fed the fire line repelling the vermin tide. “Bring the wounded over here. We can’t stop for long.”
They puttered forward and a soldier in camouflage glanced at the woman in back. They lifted her and the child free.
The rest of the ATVs zoomed through the smoke and drew to a halt.
Standing in the middle of the chaos, Sergeant Major Dawson tugged down his mask and smiled. “About time you guys got here. We were getting ready to leave when we saw the first wagon emerge from the river bed.”
“You waited for us?”
“Of course.” The soldier tossed him a bag of cookies before setting his face mask back in place. “We would have found you sooner, but the smoke renders the satellites useless. Now, let’s head out. We should be at base camp in another couple of hours, then we will relax.”
Manny tore open the cookies, before offering one to Rini.
She peeked inside before taking one. Lifting her mask, she nibbled on one corner. “We’re safe now, aren’t we?”
“Yes.” He stuck a whole one in his mouth. “Yes, we are.”
And their tribe had gotten a whole lot larger but that was a good thing.
Rini drifted forward bringing their ATV alongside Falcon’s and into the convoy. In a couple of hours, they would reach their new home.
There’d be no more rats.
And no more dying.
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