Update: The book is done at 130K and after sending it out to critique partners and beta readers, I’ll send it off to the editor. I’m still on track for it to go live at the end of August.
What could God have been thinking? Papa Rose threaded the end of the blue rope through the belt loop and drew it tight. He should never be trusted with the lives of innocents. Wasn’t he responsible for the deaths of his own children and step-children?
Brainiac stood between the back of the empty tanker and the corner of the convenience store. Rain darkened his Navy peacoat to black, whittling away the ex-sailor’s skinny frame. Water dripped off his nose, ears and hair but he didn’t budge from his post. His finger rested along side the M-4 cutting across his middle. “Don’t use all my soap now.”
“I won’t.” Jillie, the little girl they’d found in the convenience store, shivered fully clothed under the water pouring through the down spout and washed the blood from her hair. “Geez, you’ve already told me twice.”
“Yeah, well.” Brainiac glanced at her before scanning the street. “If you’re like my sister, you don’t always listen.”
“Is she with you? Your sister?”
“Nah.” Brainiac turned his face up the falling rain. “She worked at Burgers in a Basket.”
Brothers. Sisters. Family. Tune them out. Focus on what you’re doing. Papa Rose’s fingers trembled as he looped the ends of the rope over each other. At least, he didn’t have anything to do with the anthrax attack. He tugged on the rope, gathering the waistband of the baggy pants. “Say when.”
The toddler standing before him giggled, wiggled and sucked in his flat stomach. Ribs created waves on his flesh and baby teeth gleamed white in his tan face.
Christ, there wasn’t an ounce of spare meat on the kid. Papa Rose stopped pulling and waited for the little boy to relax. “You’re ticklish, huh?”
“Do you remember your name?” Were your parents one of the slaughtered masses in the convenience store behind them where Falcon scrounged among the remains of the dead, looking for something these two could use? Hooking the waistband, he tamed the wiggling kid and waited.
“Toby.” The toddler stuck his thumb in his mouth. His jaws collapsed as he sucked hard on it.
“Nice to meet you, Toby.” Papa Rose quickly knotted the rope, careful to avoid touching his ticklish tummy. “I’m Papa Rose.”
Spittle clung to his thumb when Toby removed it from his mouth with a pop. “That’s a girl’s name.”
He smiled. The stiff muscles tightened across his scalp. People like him didn’t deserve to ever smile again. “Do I look like a girl to you?”
“No.” Toby shook his head. His blue eyes widened. “That’s silly. You’re a boy.”
“That’s right.” He bit his tongue before he could say his real name. That man was dead, like the family he murdered. He just had to find someone to take care of these two so he could die like he should have.
Like he deserved.
He scratched his fingers over his bald head, used the furrows of pain to concentrate. These two children deserved better than having him look after them.
A cold wind whistled through the gas pumps, rattling the metal handles in their holders. Shivering, Toby crossed his arms over his chest. His teeth began to chatter.
“Cold, huh?” Papa Rose shrugged out of his jackett. The breeze penetrated his tee-shirt and needled his skin.
He draped it around the child, overlapping the front completely to hold it closed. “That should keep you a little warmer.” With string at a premium, he needed some duct tape. “Hold it closed until I can get you a shirt.”
“‘Kay.” His pink fingers pinched the edges.
“I’ll be right back.” Papa scooted the child between the pump and a brick column holding the awning over their heads. At least the kid would be a little out of the wind. He stepped off the curb and headed toward the Harley parked by the empty fuel tanker. He had a couple extra shirts in his bag. They were clean and he’d make do. Hopefully, he wouldn’t need anything much longer.
Rain pelted his bare head. Cold water sluiced down his neck and snaked down his spine. Fuck that was cold. He jogged to the motorcycle and yanked on the bungee cords holding his bagful of belongings to the seat. The black hooks clanged against the sides before falling to a puddle on the ground.
“Don’t damage the bike, Papa.” Brainiac scanned the rooftops of the buildings across the street.
“Bite me.” Holding the bags to his chest, he eyed the beads of moisture on the leather seat. Maybe he should move the bikes under the shelter of the awning.
Lightning crackled across the sky.
Nah, they needed to be on their way soon. He spun on his heel and nearly tripped over his feet. His heart played his ribs.
Toby stood in the puddle not even a foot away. Water darkened the triple rolled cuffs at his bony ankles. His sandy-hair lay like dried apricots against his skull.
Christ Jesus! “Toby!” he shouted. “Get out of the rain.”
The toddler’s lower lip shook and his eyes glistened with unshed tears.
Papa Rose squeezed his eyes closed. Damn him and his temper. If God needed proof that these two shouldn’t have been placed in his care, that should have provided it. He’d made an orphan cry. What kind of low-life did that? He peeked through his lashes.
Toby hunched his shoulders and hung his head.
His silence was a sucker punch to a glass jaw. Fisting the bags in one hand, Papa Rose stepped forward and swept the boy up with the other. “Sorry I yelled at you. I just don’t want you to get sick.”
Thin arms looped around his shoulders. “You still my Papa Rose?”
No! Never! With tears pricking his eyes and nose, he stumbled under the awning. He tightened his grip on the boy. Just to keep him from falling. Nothing else.
“Sure,” he rasped.
Toby laid his head on Papa Rose’s shoulder. “I yike my new papa.”
Emotion lodged in his throat cutting off his oxygen. Black rimmed his vision. Set the kid down, get on your motorcycle and ride away. Far away. Where you can’t hurt anyone ever again. His feet carried him to the fueling island. The boy’s wet hair soaked through his black tee-shirt and warmth thawed the ice around his heart until it cracked. Memories escaped the prison he’d built–wet kisses, sticky hands, even the hardheaded wisdom of his clueless teenage daughter.
Ageless children in glass tombs. His to watch forever, but never to touch again.
Never to tell them that he was sorry.
“You cryin’ Papa?” Toby’s words sealed the cracks with the precision of a laser.
He blinked and his tears disappeared in the water running down his cheeks. Swallowing the lump in his throat, he felt it settled like a rock in the pit of his stomach. “Me? Nah. Why would I when I have such a boy as you?”
Toby lifted his head and frowned at the ground. “My momma cried a lot. It made her not so hungry, sos I eats her food.”
He sank to the concrete island before his legs gave out. Not even the finest medical care had saved his children. Nothing could. The disease had been too new, too unusual. He kissed Toby’s hair before setting him on the ground. “I hope you’re not planning to eat my cookies all the time. Cuz, I have to say, I really like cookies.”
“Me too.” Toby rubbed his belly. “I yike’ the choc’late chips bestest.”
“Chocolate chip, you say?” Setting his belongings between them, he unknotted the garbage bag. The scent of laundry soap wafted from the darkness. God bless those ladies who’d cleaned his clothes with boiling pool water.
“Yep. Choc’late chip.” The boy craned his neck to peer inside the bag. “I can eat two whole big ‘uns ‘fore my tummy hurts.” He thumped on his hollow stomach.
“That many?” Papa Rose dug out a pair of socks, two empty MRE bags and a flannel teeshirt. Setting the items on the bag, he peeled the jacket off the kid.
“How many do you eats?” Eyes narrowed, Toby spun around as he was unwrapped.
Was the kid worried, he was going to steal his cookies? Then again, it wasn’t as far fetched as it should be. Others had stolen far more. “None.”
“Nuh-uh.” Toby crossed his arms and shivered.
He rolled up the tee-shirt’s hem to the neckline and tugged it over Toby’s head. “I don’t like chocolate. My favorite is the shortbread.”
The child’s scrawny arms poked through the sleeves. “How comes you don’ like choc’late?”
“Don’t know.” He released the shirt and the hem fell to the boy’s knees and the sleeves dangled past his elbows. “I’ve never liked chocolate.”
He tucked Toby back into the jacket. “I’ll make you a deal. I’ll give you my chocolate chip cookies and you give me your shortbread. Deal?”
Not that he had any intention of taking food from the kid’s mouth. Talking silly helped him remember this was someone else’s kid. As soon as they found another group of survivors, he’d palm the kid off.
“‘kay.” Toby thrust out his hand.
Papa Rose stared at it a moment before swallowing it with his big one. So soft, so fragile. It hurt to breath. He pumping the lad’s hand once before dropping it. The boy’s whole body moved.
“Now let me see those feet.”
Setting on hand on his shoulder, Toby balanced on one foot and kicked the other at him.
He cradled the icy skin before sliding the sock over it then folding it back down, so the cotton doubled in thickness. Next, he shook open one MRE bag and slipped it over the sock. “Okay, put your weight on it.”
Toby giggled but obeyed. “It feels weird.”
“I’ll bet.” He rummaged in his bag until he found a roll of half finished duct-tape. Using his thumb he found a neatly folded corner. He sucked air into his iron lungs. Miranda. His wife always ended the tape that way.
“Hows they ‘posed to say on?” Toby waggled his foot and the bag and sock slipped down.
Shaking off the past, Papa Rose ripped a foot of tape free. “You’ll see. Now put that foot down again.”
Toby’s face scrunched up. “Is it magic?”
With the roll end swinging like a pendulum, he reached into his boot and pulled out a knife. The blade sliced cleanly through the gray strip and the cardboard roll plopped to the ground.
“Gots it.” Toby hopped then crouched, catching it before it left the island. He twirled the circle around in his hands then used it as a chunky bracelet.
At least that would keep the kid busy for a few seconds. With one hand, he gathered the top of the bag around the boy’s ankle, loose enough to pull off but tight enough to stay on. Next, he wrapped the tape around the MRE bag, securing it in place. “How’s that feel?”
He looked up and his heart stopped.
With his tongue held firmly between his teeth, Toby folded over the corner of the tape. “All better.”
Beaming, the little boy held out the roll to him.
Get a grip. Lots of people folded over the corner. Lots. Slowly, his heart tried out a beat, then two before easing into an galloping rhythm. Papa Rose ignored the tremor in his hand as he accepted the gift. “Thanks.” He cleared his throat. “How’s the new shoe?”
Toby glanced down. Raising his covered foot, he shook it. The bag wiggled a bit but didn’t come off. Next, he hopped three times. “Cool!”
Dropping the duct-tape, he picked up the lone sock. “Okay, let’s get the other one on.”
“‘Kay.” Holding his unshod foot up, Toby balanced by setting his hand on Papa Rose’s shoulder.
The slight weight pressed down on him. He quickly constructed a second shoe before chucking the tape into bag. “There. All done.”
Toby hopped along the island until he reached the next gas pump. “New shoes. New shoes.”
“I forgot how little it takes to make them happy at that age.” Falcon darted out of the double doors. His rifle hung from his shoulder and a handful of white bags dangled from his hands.
Papa nodded and concentrated on rearranging his belongings. Children were so vulnerable, got sick so quickly. He licked his dry lips. Died with such a soundless whimper.
“You got something for me?” Jillie’s stood before him, arms wrapped tight around her torso and legs wrapped around one another. Her teeth chattered behind her blue lips.
Falcon held out a bag. “Found these. Something should fit.”
She swapped the white grocery sack for the small bar of Brainiac’s bar of soap. “Any shoes?”
Papa Rose held up two MRE wrappers. “Got your customized pair right here.”
“Excellent! I haven’t had a new pair in a long while.” She smiled. Blood wept from the graze at her temple. “Be right back.”
Turning on her heel, she padded toward the side of the building.
“Yo, Brainiac.” Falcon shoved a handful of clean bags into Papa Rose’s gut. “Check out the bathroom for the lady.”
“Aye, aye.” With a palm flash, Brianiac jogged through the rain to the side of the building.
Jillie splashed through the puddles before disappearing around the corner of the building.
Hinges squeaked. “Bathroom is clear. Hey, where’s my soap?”
“I gave it to the bald dude.”
Papa Rose shook his head. Maybe he should change his name. He eyed the blood red ink blooming on his arm. What was the point? His past would never free him.
Falcon snorted. “Hey, bald dude, given any thought to how we’re going to transport the munchkins?”
Toby jumped off the island. His plastic shoes crinkled as he landed. Dark wisps of hair hung in his brown eyes. “What’s a munch’in?”
“That’s you, little man.” He tossed a pair of clean socks from hand to hand. Damn but the kid looked so innocent and trusting. Lightning fractured the low-lying clouds and highlighted the lines of rain streaking down. A snare drum of thunder chased hard on its heels. He had to find a way to get rid of the kids.
“I’m Toby, not a munch’in.” The toddler shook his head. With knees bent, he swung his arms back and forth then jumped the six inch the curb.
“Papa Rose?” Falcon snatched the socks out of the air. His dark fingers dug into the white ball of fabric. “How we going to transport the munchkins?”
He shoved his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels. “The boy will ride in front of me on the bike, and the girl will hang on from the back.”
“Is it safe?”
He’d told his wife it was and their children had never gotten hurt. “I’m willing to pick another curtain, just tell me which one.”
The point of Falcon’s yellow bandanna flopped over his eye. With his free hand, he smoothed it back. “Maybe we can find a group of survivors and… you know.”
“Yeah.” He knew. Their suicide pact hadn’t exactly gone as planned. They were having a hell of a time getting to the dying part. His gaze slanted to Toby. “Right now we need to focus on finding gas or there won’t be any survivors. Just corpses that glow in the dark.”
Falcon tugged a folded up paper from the back pocket of his jeans. “You think radiation poisoning is as bad as the Doc said?”
“Worse.” Brainiac sauntered through the rain, his M-4 cradled in his arm. “I’ve seen videos of exposure victims. It isn’t pretty.”
He grunted. Guys like him didn’t deserve pretty.
Falcon shrugged. “There’s always plan B.”
Eating his gun? That was too fast. Men who put their own wants above their family deserved to suffer. The man who brought the Redaction to Phoenix deserved to suffer.
A bullet to the brain was out of the question for him, but he’d make sure the ex-green beret was buried before signing up for a nuclear tan.
Holding the knotted plastic bag over her head, Jillie slipped around him and under the safety of the awning. Her barefeet slapped the cement before she drew to a halt beside them and held out her hand. “I’ll take my shoes now.”
“Here you go, Miss Thang.” Falcon placed the socks on her palm.
“What’s plan B?” Brainiac crouched by the bag. His long fingers raked the contents from side to side before finding the sliver of soap sweating against a baggie. Pinching it between his thumb and index finger, he lifted it free then tucked it into his breast pocket.
They wouldn’t tell the squid their plan. He had something to live for. While Falcon busied himself with unfolding the paper in his hand, Papa Rose supplied an answer, edited for small ears. “Kiss our butts goodbye unless we find fuel to keep the power plant running for another four days.”
Brainiac grinned revealing the gap between his two front teeth. “I’ve been thinking about that.”
“Well, while you’ve been thinking, I’ve been planning.” A gust of frigid air shook out Falcon’s folded paper. It snapped flat before fluttering.
No, not paper. Papa Rose leaned closer. Neat grid lines carved up the top. Leave it to a spec ops guy to find a map. Red xes marked the corners of some streets. Glancing over his shoulder, he noted the names hanging from green signs at the intersection before picking it out on the map. The red mark had a black line running through it.
Brainiac caught the flapping edge and pulled it taut. “What’s this?”
Falcon rolled his eyes. “It’s a map. Don’t they teach squids anything?”
“Kinda hard to navigate a sub.” He nodded to the sailor. “They don’t have windows so they wouldn’t know to turn right at the mermaid or that something is due south of Atlantis.”
“Ha. Ha.” Brainiac folded his arm across his chest. “We use computers to navigate in a sub. Very, very expensive computers.”
“This is old school GPS.”
“Great, great-grandfather’s school.” Brainiac poked one of the xes. “What do those mean?”
Falcon smiled. “Please say we didn’t let you tag along for your brains.”
Papa Rose’s inside cramped. Maybe the squid wasn’t as smart as they thought. He eyed Toby before his gaze skipped to Jillie. She sat on the dry island, adjusting the MRE bags over her feet. Damn, they needed to find survivors to dump the kids. “Those are gas stations.”
“Oh.” Brainiac blotted at the water beading on the muzzle of his rifle. “How do you know where they are? Did you live around here?”
A muscle flexed in Falcon’s jaw and he squeezed his eyes closed for a minute.
Damn, the squid had gotten personal. Had he forgotten rule number one? The apocalyptic version of ‘don’t ask; don’t tell’. “Look B–”
“Yeah.” The raw words emerged from Falcon. “Yeah, I grew up around here. A lifetime ago.” He cleared his throat. “But I know where the stations are because I consulted a phone book. I picked the chains not the mom and pop shops since I knew most of the chains were slated to open.”
“Oh.” Brainiac raked his fingers through his hair. “Sorry, dude. I–”
“B!” Christ Jesus. The squid didn’t remember rule number two. No apologies. Life was too short.
“S’alright.” Falcon pointed to a black line near the x marking their current location. “This is the most efficient route to take. We should be able to find gas along there somewhere.”
He hoped, maybe even prayed a little. For the munchkins’ sake, not his own.
“But that’s just it!” Brainiac bounced on the balls of his feet. “I don’t think we need to look any farther. I think we have gas right here.”
Obviously the elements had gotten to the squid. His brain had frozen. “We already checked the tanker. It was empty.”
“Yeah, but where did the fuel go?” Brainiac clunked the concrete slab with the heel of his boot. “The driver might have filled up the underground storage tanks before…” He jerked his head toward the convenience store and the bodies slaughtered within. “Think about it. Why else would the tanker still be here? And all these vehicles…”
He looked at the intersection. “The squid has a point. They could have been waiting to fill up.”
Easy pickings for the murders to run up to them with guns drawn, drag them out of their cars then shove them inside and shoot them.
Falcon scratched the stubbled sprayed across his narrow chin. “And this helps us how? Those tanks will be too low to siphon it off.”
“And there’s the time factor.” He stared into the incoming storm. Since the power had been off for days, Palo Verde might already be on the verge of a meltdown. He checked his dose badge. Still showing the all clear.
“The store has a back-up generator.” Brainiac rubbed his hands together. “I’ll take a gallon from the bikes and power it up, then we can pump the gas back into the tanker and be on our way.”
Falcon raised an eyebrow and pursed his lips.
Damn but why did the Spec Ops guy always get to play the strong, silent type? Even in civilian life the grunts did all the work. And now he got to be the party pooper, too. “We need the gas to reach Palo Verde.”
“Yeah, but there’s bound to be thousands of gallons under our feet.” Brainiac stomped his foot.
For emphasis or a tantrum. It was hard to tell. The squid couldn’t be much older than Jillie. “If it was there, why did the bad guys not take it?”
Brainiac tugged on his hair until the wet ends stood out like overlarge ears. “I don’t know. Maybe they shot first and asked questions later. Maybe they’re coming back to get more but they needed a bigger vehicle.”
A tug on his shirt had Papa Rose looking down.
Toby held up his teddy bear. “Papa mad?”
“No, I’m not mad.” He ruffled the toddler’s dark hair.
Brainiac snorted. “Papa’s just a stubborn, old goat.”
Toby covered his mouth. “Papa goat.”
“Papa Rose, Toby. Papa Rose.” He speared the squid with a glare.
Brainiac raised his hands in surrender. “All I’m saying is, we know there was gas delivered here because the truck. Just one measly gallon will turn on the generator enough for me to know if there’s any left in the underground tanks and how much. If it’s there, we won’t have to drive around the valley looking for it, plus I can repay what I’ve taken.”
“That’s a big if.” The squid was stubborn. He’d give him that. “A measly gallon can mean the difference between a trip to Palo Verde or one that’s a day’s walk away. And in case you hadn’t noticed, the tanks on those bikes aren’t exactly huge.”
“Half a gallon, then.”
Great. The decision to be wrong was all his. “Fine. Half a gallon. Not a drop more.”
“Yes.” Brainiac pumped the air. “Come on squirt you can help me roll the bike closer.”
Jillie shuffled after him. Her new shoes scuffing the ground as she walked.
Falcon shook his head. “When do you think he’s gonna figure out we got no hose?”
Yeah, that would be a problem. Papa Rose scanned the parking lot and his attention stuck to a red box with a black rope coiled at its side. Of course, an air station. “We got one.”
“Well, I’ll be damned. This just might work.”
“So we gonna pick our noses while B takes the credit for saving us old farts?”
“Who you calling old?”
“If the gray hair fits…” He glanced at the white hair at Falcon’s temples. Insults weren’t personal, they were a way to keep insanity at bay. At least a little while longer.
Toby leaned against the gas pump, his thin arms wrapped around the teddy bear.
Papa Rose slid his arms around the toddler and lifted him. Toby snuggled closer. The clean scent of soap wafted from his skin. For a moment, his grip tightened. He definitely needed to find a group of survivors and soon. Turning on his heel, he headed for the tanker.
Falcon shielded the kid’s face with the map. “Put the kid in the truck’s cab. He’ll be safe and dry and can see us if he wakes up.”
“You think I’m walking in the rain for shits and grins?”
“You’re regular Army. There’s no telling how you get your jollies.”
“Just open the fucking door.”
“Watch your language around the kiddies, Papa Baldy.” Falcon opened the door before climbing up the metal running board.
Juggling the conscious kid, he slowly lifted him up. “Go soak your head.”
“Been there, done that, have the tee-shirt to prove it.” Falcon carefully twisted around and lowered Toby onto the bench seat. “You sleep now. We’ll be just outside if you need us.” He fiddled smoothed the long tee-shirt over the toddler’s legs then carefully closed the door. “Snug as a bug.”
Papa Rose didn’t wait to hear if Toby answered. He had to find a car–a foreign compact that got great gas mileage. He would drive the children to the power plant in that, then B would drive away with them, leaving him and Falcon behind with their demons.
The radiation would silence them.
Brainiac darted out of the small room on the side of the convenience store, glanced around the parking lot before rushing to the air station. Metal winked as he cut off a length of hose and ran back. He threaded one end in the open gas tank then disappeared inside again.
“Where you going, Papa?”
“Shopping.” Jogging down the driveway, he eyed the vehicles. There. In the center lane. A blue compact. Now, he just had to clear a path.
Falcon stopped next to him. “See one you like?”
“Yeah.” He pointed to the car. It was going to be a bitch getting out of the jam, but Toyotas were supposed to get great gas mileage. “That one.”
“Of course, the one facing the wrong direction and in the center lane.” Falcon shook his head. “Why didn’t you just pick one two blocks over parked in a tree?”
“Because that would be too easy.” He opened the door on the closest truck. Keys dangled from the ignition. He tried the engine. Nothing. Shifting it in neutral, he braced on hand on the door opening and the other on the dash. Muscle burned as he pushed. One inch. Two. Rain slipped in his eyes. Wasn’t the street supposed to be flat?
Hands slapped metal and the truck lurched forward. Falcon shoved on the tailgate.
Guess the man was good for something. He steered it straight, passed the entrance until they reached the first car in the log-jam. Yanking hard he guided it into place and let it coast to a stop.
Falcon shook the rain from his crew cut. “One down and only twenty or so to go.”
From the gas station a generator started with a deep throated growl.
“Ha!” Brainiac’s shout drowned out the motor. He bounced out of the room and kicked at the rain. “We’ve got three thousand left.”
Well, shit. The squid would never let them hear the end of it.
“That’s great.” He yanked open the door of the next vehicle. Hopefully the Buick would be easier to move than the truck.
“Now how to we put it back in the tanker?” Falcon took up his position behind the maroon trunk.
Brainiac scratched his head then grinned. “We’re going to pump it.”
Before shifting into neutral, he tried the engine. Dead. The bad guys must have drained them first. Fuckers. He changed gears before climbing out and setting a hand on the frame and another on the wheel. “That will take forever.”
It took forever to fill up his truck and that was merely twenty-six gallons. They’d be here all night and into tomorrow to get three thousand out. At his nod, they both pushed the sedan. It slowly eased forward.
“Not if you use the right pump.” Brainiac pointed to the equipment store on the opposite side of the street. “I’ll need a pump that’s–”
“We’re a little busy at the moment.”
“Hey, I can give you a little gas to get them moving.”
Falcon hung his head. “I hate squid.”
“You said it.” Papa guided the car to a stop along the median. Damn, now he felt old and stupid. Wiping the rain from his eyes, he stared at the ex-sailor. “What do you want us to get?”
“A submersible pump.” Brainiac cupped his hands around his mouth. “And make sure it’s in good working condition and no frayed cords. One stray spark and we all go boom.”
Falcon leaned against the Buick. “Rocks, paper, scissors?”
“I’ll go.” He squeezed between the bumpers of two sedans and stepped onto the median. At least, he knew what a submersible pump looked like. Cassia bushes scratched at his jeans as he squeezed through to the other street. He set his hand on the blue Toyota. Soon, you’ll be mine.
“Help!” A woman shouted above the rain. “Someone help me!”