After Anthrax Exposure
“Is that where we’re going, Missus S?”
Audra Silvester checked the rearview mirror. A pair of wide brown eyes in a chalky, half-covered face stared back at her. Oscar Renault. She’d had the pudgy, pimply-faced twelve-year-old in her class last year. Between his ADHD and his mother’s insistence that he was the perfect child, she’d decided to give up teaching. They had been the last straw in a baleful.
The notion seemed pathetically pitiful now. Thankfully, she hadn’t told anyone.
“You sick, too, Missus S?” Oscar slid off the seat behind her and scooted forward on his knees, seemingly unaware that he’d asked another question without having an answer for the first one. Snot left dark trails down the thighs of his worn, dirty jeans. His hand shook before he wrapped it around the pole on her right.
“No, Oscar. I’m fine.” Her words puffed against the bandanna covering the lower half of her face and whispered hot, moist breath back at her. Clammy sweat beaded her forehead at the odor of excrement. Hopefully it was from the slops bucket in the back and not…anything else. Unfortunately rolling down the window to blow away the stench wasn’t an option.
“You sure?” He wiped his nose on the back of his hand before scraping it off on his jeans.
“I’m sure.” She reiterated for the fourth time in the last five minutes. But God knew how long she’d be healthy. How long anyone of them would be.
She was going to die.
And one of these kids, probably Oscar who now hovered closer than her shadow, would infect her. The steering wheel jerked under her hands and she clamped down. Nails dug into her palms and her fingers cramped as she guided the big yellow bus half on the shoulder and half off of the interstate.
“You think you won’t not get sick again?” Oscar perched on the edge of his seat, scabby knees poked through the holes in his pants as he hung practically in the aisle.
Her skull throbbed from the double negative. Proper English didn’t really seem so important at the end of the world. Still… “I’m sure I will get sick this time. Especially since so many are sick again.”
But it hadn’t happened that way the first time. She’d stayed in the school, nursing the sick, cooking meals, forcing folks to eat, then recording the dead and handing them off to the military for mass burial. For six months, she never caught the Redaction–the influenza pandemic that had killed thirty-five percent of everyone. She’d never come down with a sniffle, sneeze or cough.
Surely, she wouldn’t be so lucky this wave.
“Why don’t you rest a bit? We’re still a long way from the soldiers.”
Oscar opened his mouth but no words came out.
Movement in the mirror caught her attention. Faye Eichmann prowled the aisle, heading straight for the front. White hibiscus petals painted the hot pink fabric of her designer dress. The long skirt fluttered around her toothpick legs. Pink and red plastic bangles clinked on her bony wrists while chunks of diamonds winked from her ears, throat and fingers.
The fortune on jewels was meant to insure she could buy food and shelter. Audra was pretty sure it would get her killed. The influenza wasn’t the only thing out there murdering innocents.
Oscar folded himself into the passenger seat and shrank away from the diamond encrusted harpy.
Too bad, she couldn’t do the same. Audra stared at the dozens of cars abandoned on the blacktop. Maybe she could pretend dodging the vehicles took up all her attention and ignore the woman.
In a puff of sour sweat and faded perfume, Faye stopped next to Audra. With her feet apart, she braced her hand on the metal rail. “Why couldn’t people have pulled off to the side of the road when they’d broken down?”
Because they were sick, dying or dead. Audra winced at the stench of smelly pits momentarily overrode the offal’s. Bad enough she had to wallow in her own stink, why did the woman feel the need to share hers when she asked rhetorical questions? “It certainly has slowed us down.”
Up ahead a black Ford pick-up truck tilted in the dip between the North and Southbound lanes of Interstate Ten. Its driver hung halfway out the open door. The stillness of his body didn’t relate his death as did his hands, swollen like black oven mitts, dangling an inch above the weeds. Of their own volition, her eyes checked the passenger side when she passed. Two dead children lay on their backs in a mat of weeds, their bodies bloated in the weak sun. Flies swarmed around them, laying larvae would devour the soft tissue with surgical precision.
“We’re up to seventeen.”
Wincing, Audra forced her eyes on the road and jerked on the wheel. Faye wasn’t callous; she just coped differently. Lots of folks didn’t want to get chummy with anyone, especially the sick, because of the risk of loss. It was understandable. It pissed her off.
She shrugged off the sarcasm. Parents weren’t much different than their teenagers–rude, difficult and unwilling to learn. God, she hated being a teacher almost as much as she hated this new world. “I’ve learned a thing or three in the last nine hours.”
Nine hours. Almost four times the time it usually took to travel from Tucson to Phoenix. Her stomach cramped. And what did it gain her? This place looked no safer than where she’d come from, than where she’d passed through. Add in the intermittent belch of the air-raid sirens plus the lack of people and the creep factor spiked off the charts.
“You’re a cool one, Audrey.”
Taking a deep breath, she let the name slight pass and focused on what was important–surviving until she could dump her busload of sick onto the soldiers and get on with her life. She maneuvered into a lane completely free of vehicles. Maybe she’d be rid of them faster than she thought. Her foot pressed on the gas pedal and the bus picked up speed. “Seventeen sick isn’t that bad. We have nearly forty people on the bus.”
And if this flu worked like the last one, most of those seventeen would survive. She sucked on her bottom lip. But it didn’t seem to be playing by the same rules. They’d left quite a few corpses behind in the school cafeteria.
Faye leaned forward. Her floral bodice gaped open and a strand of pearls dribbled out. They swayed from side to side. “That’s the number of dead on the bus. Not that you care. You’re immune.”
Audra released her bottom lip. They all crowded around her like she was their personal lucky rabbit’s foot. Ask the rabbit how lucky he felt. “I care, and there’s no telling if I’m immune this go round.”
Faye snorted. Light and shadow played across her face, highlighting her crow’s feet and the frown lines around her mouth. “Doesn’t look like heading for Phoenix was such a good idea from where I stand.”
In the distance, pillars of black smoke dwarfed the skyscrapers wicking scarlet flames ever closer to the sky. The sunrise had punted a fuzzy, jaundiced ball over the jagged Superstition Mountains to the East. Ebony storm clouds spread like spilled ink on the western horizon and were cleaved apart by cracks of lightning.
Her nightmares were far more pleasant than this new world. They also contained fewer people. Soon she could walk away from their complaining. She just had to find the soldiers.
“That’s Phoenix. We’re going to Mesa.” Lifting her hand, she pointed out the right side of the bus.
The vehicle tilted as many passengers shuffled closer to the windows and pressed their noses against the glass. Seventeen may be dead but the rest were awake and… Aside from a few snuffles, she didn’t hear a cough in the bunch. How could that be?
Oscar ducked under Faye’s arm, crawled over the yellow line and sat on the top step. He swayed from side to side as he looked out the spotted panes of glass.
“At least the fires seem to be out.” Faye tucked her pearls back into her dress.
Not with that much smoke still billowing. Great belches of gray rose from the ground, obscuring any buildings except those along the freeway.
“There’s nothing on the freeway that would burn.” But the bridges and overpasses could collapse. Tucson had taught her that. Yawning, Audra shook her head to try to clear it. Tears raced to her eyes blurring her vision. She blinked them away. It had been a long night.
Oscar twisted at the waist to look at her. “What if all the soldiers are dead?”
“Then we salvage what we can and push on.” She slapped on the turn signal. Weaving through a handful of abandoned vehicles, she worked her way to the right hand lane. Someone had cleared enough space for her vehicle to merge onto the 202. She hoped it was the military and not some parasite laying a trap for travelers.
“To where?” Faye shot back.
Audra sighed. Like I have all the answers. Most of you didn’t listen to me when I was trying to teach your little ingrates English, yet now I’m supposed to know everything. “Not everyone in the military can be dead. Someone flew those Army choppers and Air Force planes. We saw them just this morning and they were heading north.”
A lucky guess on her part since they’d set out last night. Of course, not everyone had gone with them. Most had stayed behind at the school. They weren’t her problem now. Neither were the two buses that hadn’t made it passed Casa Grande. And, if they reached the soldiers, this lot wouldn’t be either.
She wouldn’t feel guilty about leaving them.
“North could be Flagstaff for all we know.”
A muffled sob rose from the back. Either someone new was sick or they’d discovered the person next to them was dead.
I can’t deal with this anymore. I can’t… She clamped down the thought. The opposite of can’t was death. She refused to die. “Then we will go to Flag and find them.”
“And how are we going to get there if we can’t go through Phoenix?”
“I’ll find a way.” Audra clamped her jaw closed. She’d go to Timbuktu to get rid of the woman. The engine grumbled as she climbed the onramp onto the Santan freeway. Merging, she blinked. The freeway was deserted. Four empty lanes for as far as her eye could see. True, blowing smoke reduced that to a mile or so, but she’d take it.
“What is it, Oscar?”
“I’m glad we came with you.” His heel tapped out a beat on the floorboards. “You’re smarter than anyone I ever knowed. You can get us through this.”
Well, crap. Why did he have to go say something like that? Now, she couldn’t throw him off the bus, let alone correct his improper English. Most of the half-covered faces in the rearview mirror nodded. “Thank you, Oscar. I hope you’re right.”
For all our sakes.
“I am, Miz S.” He leaned against the dash and drummed on his leg. “I am.”
She cleared her throat and blinked rapidly to clear away the tears. Stupid smoke must be getting in her eyes.
“Breaker. Breaker. Two. Eight. This is seven-niner. Come back.”
Audra rolled her eyes at the gibberish crackling through the child’s walkie-talkie strapped to the dashboard in an old blue jean’s pocket. Mrs. Rodriquez had certainly thrown herself into bus driving with enthusiasm. Her passengers quieted and expectation hummed in the air. After seven hours of near silence, they were being talked to by someone outside their bus, too bad it wasn’t a radio broadcast with an update.
“Can I answer, Miz S?” Oscar jumped to his feet. Steadying himself, he clutched the bar near her head and snagging a lock of her hair in the process.
Heat burned along her scalp at the pull. Leaning toward his hand, she eased the burn a little bit. “Sure.”
Faye snorted and plopped down on the seat behind Audra. “An adult should answer it. That toy is the only thing keeping us together.”
She was the only thing keeping them together. For some strange reason, people listened to her, followed her. Good Lord, when would it end?
Duct tape protested when Oscar pulled the walkie free. A corner of the empty pocket folded over. He squeezed the black button on the side and held the toy against his mouth. “This is bus twenty-eight, er, I mean two-eight coming back to you seven-niner.”
“Good morning two-eight.” Mrs. Rodriquez chirped.
Audra twisted her hands on the wheel. How could someone be so happy so early in the morning and without coffee, especially when they’d been up all night driving?
“We’re running low on gasoline.”
Audra bit her lip. The happy pronouncement was battery acid in a wound. No gas. No go. No soldiers. No safety. No rest. She eyed her own gas gauge. The red needle flirted with the bar just a hair above empty. The tank had been full since the schools were prepping to return to action before the Redaction returned. She eyed the road sign, mentally tallied the distance between them and the targeted campus. “How low are you? We’ve got twelve miles to go.”
“I’m near to coasting.” The chirp dulled in her voice. “Who knew a two and a half hour trip would take us nearly nine, and we have no idea how long the last twelve miles will take.”
Three other voices echoed Mrs. Rodriquez’s concerns. That made every driver in the convoy. Audra tapped her brakes as the smoke thickened.
“We can’t stop here!” Lurching to her feet, Faye swayed while standing on the yellow safety line. “I hear rats.”
Gray clouds pressed against the windshield and the sound of squeaks penetrated the bus. Rats. Audra’s toes curled in her cowboy boots. The flames herded them. She leaned forward until the steering wheel cut into her belly.
“Do you see the fire?”
Bending, Faye braced one hand on the dash. Her head turned from side to side. “It’s everywhere.”
Which meant they couldn’t stop or even slow down.
Oscar clicked the on/off button, punctuating the rat serenade with static. “What do you want me to say, Miz S?”
“Ask if anyone sees flames.” Her eyes strained to detect the red tongue of fire high above the sloping concrete walls. Rats streamed down the pink surface but didn’t swarm in a panic. Still, if they pulled off too soon, they’d be overrun and eaten by the fleeing vermin. Cold snaked down her spine. She’d seen it before. Please God, don’t let me ever see it again.
“Miz S wants to know if anyone can see where the fire is.”
“In the smoke breaks, I can see some intermittent meatball in marinara sauce.” Mrs. Rodriquez answered.
Audra swallowed the bile in her throat. Whoever referred to the rat roadkill as food should be shot. Spaghetti and meatballs had been her favorite dish until they’d coined the reference. She doubted she’d want to eat it ever again. And her problem still wasn’t solved. They needed to know where the fire was.
“I think I see flames in my rearview mirror.” Jacqueline Silvester’s voice drifted through the walkie. “Would someone please verify?”
Audra inhaled a slow breath. Despite everything they’d been through her mother still wouldn’t come out and state something least she offend a stranger. Not that she minced words with her daughter. Oh, no, Audra was issued commands every time they met or spoke. She should have stopped listening to her mother years ago. Heck, even ten hours ago would have been smart. Then she wouldn’t be in charge of this group. She tightened her grip on the steering wheel and eased into the center lane. But as soon as she found the soldiers all that would be in the past.
“Good call, Jackie O.” Mrs. Rodriquez confirmed. “We’ve passed the fires.”
Audra smiled at the nickname. No one would have dared abbreviate Jacqueline Silvester’s name back in Washington D.C. or compared her to a Democratic first lady. The Silvester lineage dated to the founding fathers and so did the family fortunes. They bled Republican. Welcome to the new world, Mother.
“I think we should go another mile up to be safe, then exit.” Mrs. Rodriquez sang. “What say you, Madam Fearless Leader?”
Oscar grinned showing teeth he’d yet to grow into. “That’s you.”
“I know.” Audra winked at him while scanning the horizon. The smoke did seem thinner.
“Exit?” Faye flapped her scrawny arms. “Why exit? We have all the fuel we need in the last bus. We can stop right here on the freeway. No need to get off.”
Audra ignored her. Advice was so easy to give when no one asked for it. Especially when everyone already knew it.
“What should I tell her?”
She slapped on the turn signal and made her way to the right hand lane. “Tell her we’re going to fill up.”
The buses followed her lead and swerved.
She shifted in her seat. Maybe she could empty her bladder and stretch a bit. Hopefully it wouldn’t take too long to refill from the barrels on her mother’s bus–the one carrying the last of their food and many of their belongings.
Plus a few corpses.
The corpses. She sucked on her bottom lip. What should she do with them? Leaving them on the side of the road seemed so callous, especially when there were rats prowling for a meal. But carrying them further was out of the question–they could be contagious. The scent of fecal matter drifted by. Her gut threatened to exit her mouth. And there was the matter of the slops pot. The five-gallon bucket they used as a potty needed to be emptied.
“Miz R, we’re pulling over.” Oscar shouted into the walkie.
The rest of her passengers scuttled to their seats. Three of them raised their hands.
She shook her head. Once a teacher… “Yes, Haley?”
An eight-year-old in a red jumper stood up, crossed legs and wedged a hand against her private parts. “Can we get out, Miss Silvester? I have to pee.”
“Yes.” Ignoring the shoulder, she guided the bus up the ramp. They needed facilities, hopefully the kind with running water. “Grab your buddy and stay close to the parent assigned to watch you.” If they were still alive. “I don’t want anyone getting lost, you hear?”
Groans interspersed the ‘yes, Miz S’.
“Pit stop sounds delightful, Miz Slopspot.” Mrs. Rodriquez twittered through the walkie. “Mr. Know-It-All says we could try for the Burgers in a Basket. He says they were opened for a few days and will have laid in a supply of cooking oil we can use to conserve our biodiesel supply.”
Cooking oil for biodiesel? That didn’t sound right. Audra braked at the top of the ramp. But then what did she know? She taught English not science. “Okay, I’ll keep an eye out.”
Cars jammed the intersection. Flies swarmed some–a sign that their occupants slowly rotted inside. The stench of death clung to the pervading smoke drifts. She glanced right then left. Two gas stations across the freeway. Would one of them have batteries to power their radio? Surely, there had to be news somewhere.
“I see one, Miz S.” Isaac jumped on the floor. “I see one.”
She followed the direction of his pointing. On the south side, along with a string of stores, sat a gas station and a Burgers in the Basket. Wood boarded up the broken windows of the gas station and only the eight remained of the eight-ninety-five price tag for a gallon of regular gas on the milky sign. Gang tags stained the stucco walls in bloody hues. At the restaurant, faded posters proclaimed the arrival of toys for the new movie Hatshepsut.
Grand reopening signs hung from the eaves of the grocery store and fluttered in the breeze. Empty carts scattered across the rutted parking lot. Here and there, tall weeds sprouted above closely cropped greenery. A narrow strip of asphalt had been cleared through the metal bottleneck, funneling them to the restaurant. The skin on her neck prickled. Please don’t let this be a trap. Please. Please.
Cranking the wheel hard, she eased onto the gas pedal. The front fender scraped black paint off the side of a BMW. Metal screeched as she pushed the car back against the median. Maybe she hadn’t quite gotten the hang of driving a bus. Hopefully, no one was around to hear.
As soon as the bus straightened out, she pulled the steering wheel in the other direction. An ache spread from her clenched jaw and tightened her scalp. Who was the idiot that designed such a tight turn? She jerked backward when the bus jumped the curb. Her hand shot out and her fingers curled into Oscar’s jacket, keeping him on his feet.
“Whoa!” His dirty nails dug into her arm.
“Why don’t you put the walkie back and sit down?” She rolled through the empty gas station bays.
With a shrug, he tucked it back into the jean pocket on the dash then smoothed the fabric flat and fiddled with the tape. By the time he’d finished, the bus had coasted into the fast food joint’s parking lot.
Kids. She shook her head and shifted the bus into park. A check in the rearview mirror showed that Mr. Dunn hadn’t stirred in his seat.
Faye grabbed Oscar by the scruff of his neck and shoved him toward his seat before catching Audra’s eye. “He passed around four this morning.”
Fear banded her lungs. He’d been recovering yesterday. Well, the day before yesterday. Still, she couldn’t remember the Redaction killing so fast or folks seeming to recover then getting worse. She shook off the thoughts. She’d think about it later, when they were safe with the soldiers. “Do you want to check for strangers?”
Faye glanced outside before shaking her head. “I’ll watch over the children.”
Great. Audra ran her fingers through the keys in the ignition. She had to go outside. With shaking fingers, she undid her seatbelt. The metal buckle clunked against the floor but she barely heard it over the pounding in her ears. Slowly, she turned in the seat. Her legs tingled from the change in position. “Get me the flashlight.”
“Why? It’s not dark outside.”
Really? Was the woman so dense or was she desperate to get behind the wheel? God, what if she took off, leaving Audra behind? She flexed her fingers. Faye wouldn’t take off without the supplies or fuel. “For protection from unfriendly strangers.”
Children lined up behind Faye–each doing a unique potty dance.
Faye spun around but didn’t make an effort to move. “Can someone pass the flashlight forward?”
Like a green baton, they passed it overhead until it reached the front of the bus.
Faye was smirking when she turned again. “Here you go.”
Audra’s palm closed around the warm metal. “Thanks. If it’s safe, I’ll come back for the children and you can empty the slops pot.”
If Audra had to risk her life, she shouldn’t have to lug the pooh as well. Squaring her shoulders, she tugged on the metal handle and the doors folded back. Warm air rushed in. Under the ever present smoke, she detected the faint odor of calamari thrown on a hot charcoal grill. Her stomach clenched.
Somewhere close by, people had burned.
Please don’t let them have been alive at the time. She finished the prayer as her boots scraped asphalt. The last buses in the caravan pulled up until they bracketed the fast food restaurant. A man in a gas mask and camouflage exited the bus behind her. He swung his shotgun left then right before rushing toward her.
Exiting bus seven-niner, a man in a dirty business suit waved his pistol in the air then jogged to the area behind the bus. The principal sure did like acting like a desperado, then again, after twenty-nine years, maybe he hoped he could shoot some of the more difficult parents as payback. She hoped it didn’t get him killed. A moment later, a trim woman in torn jeans and an oversized AC/DC tee-shirt jumped off the bus. She swung her Louisville slugger for a moment before setting it on her shoulder.
Gas mask puffed like Darth Vader as he slid to a stop next to her. His snakehead tat throbbed over his carotid artery. “We got twenty-two dead.”
“Seventeen for us.” Audra set her hand against her face mask as the wind tried to sneak under the fabric. Her ears pricked and her heart tripped over a beat. Did she hear voices?
Bat-girl sprinted from Principal Desperado’s side to join them. A sheriff’s deputy in faded khakis replaced her and tamed the pistol waving.
“We have ten dead on our bus. Principal Dunn thinks we can put them in the gas station.” She jerked her chin at the boarded up building. Her blue surgical mask slipped and her almond-shaped brown eyes widened before she shoved it back in place.
A hot wind bent the weeds and shook the busses. In the distance, something exploded.
Audra flinched and faced the noise. Black smoke belched from a neighborhood across a vacant lot. Evil red fireflies danced in the cloud. The sparks landed on the shingle roofs.
Frown lines appeared in Batgirl’s forehead. “I wonder what caused the explosion.”
“People.” Gas mask wheezed. “If we stay here too long, they’ll find us. We need to complete our business before they attack.”