“No! Not the gangs!” Stuart’s people melted into the shadows of the restaurant’s kitchen. Metal clanged. Someone screamed. A wail bounced off the tiled wall.
Good gravy. Audra’s fingernails dug into her palms. Panic was all she needed. It was more contagious than the Redaction and twice as dangerous. She had people to get out of the restaurant, making the gathering of those supplies more critical.
“Calm down!” Her shout bounced around the fast food restaurant. From the corner of her eye, she watched her mother and the children near the restrooms cringe. One little girl stuck her finger in her mouth and pulled hard enough to tighten the skin over her cheeks. Just wonderful. Audra was scaring children now. She closed her eyes and prioritized. Fuel. Dead bodies. Supplies. Evacuate. With forty extra people–
“You have guns, right?”
Audra opened her eyes to watch Stuart edge along the prep counter. No doubt he wanted to cower in the kitchen, hide in the darkness. Too bad. Everyone had a part to play. “Those with jugs of oil please make your way to the buses. We need to fill up.”
No one moved in the kitchen. What was wrong with them? Didn’t they know their hiding space had already been compromised? They would be found, hurt, unless they all left together. She bit her lip to keep from shouting the words. The truth would induce panic not free them from it.
“How many guns do you have?” Stuart faded into the black kitchen until his pale face hovered above his shadowy form.
Her attention flicked to her mother. Jacqueline Silvestre shrugged and continued to file the children through the facilities. Wonderful. Even her mother had stopped listening to her. Audra jerked her head toward the shotgun in Eddie’s hand.
“Yes, we have some guns.” But not enough for everyone. Not enough for some shootout at the OK Corral. The children could get hurt. She had to protect the children until she could hand them off to the soldiers. “Please order–”
“We have far more ammunition than guns.” Eddie scooped a handful of shells out of his pocket. Red sleeve cartridges rolled over his calloused palm.
Stuart’s nose twitched. “You need to shoot them. Kill them.”
“We are not going to solve this with violence.” The very idea left a bad taste in her mouth. “Now, about that fuel–”
“You don’t know these animals.” Wild fire blazed in Stuart’s blue eyes. He rushed her, crossing the serving area in seconds.
She retreated. Her bootheels scraped the tiled kick plate and the register drawer dug into her back. Her heart ratcheted up a notch. Was the man mentally unsound?
“You don’t know what they’ve done.” White flecks of spittle clung to his lips and punctuated the air.
“I have a pretty good idea.” Raising her hand, she set it on his chest and pushed him away as she straightened. The massacre at Casa Grande replayed inside her skull–the helpless women used as bait, the offer of assistance, the clearing of the buses at gunpoint, the bloody spray of bullets and the slow descent of friends’ bodies as they fell to the ground. Shaking her head, she cleared the image. “We cannot descend to their level. We have to be better than that.”
She speared him with a look. He hadn’t taken up the mantle of leadership in the months since he and his brother had wandered into her school. Why was he challenging her now?
His eyes narrowed above the gas mask. After returning the shells to his pocket, he raised the shotgun and prodded Stuart’s shoulder. “Back up there, Stuie, Princess A is in charge of our little kingdom. If you want to ride the magic carpet, you have to pledge allegiance to the kingdom upon which she stands.”
Audra blinked. Had Eddie just defended her?
“We have a right to protect ourselves.” Stuart slithered back in the shadows. “We must shoot them! Kill them!”
“Princess A.” Standing near the side door, Principal Dunn cleared his throat. “What are your orders?”
She jerked her head once. Their show of solidarity meant a lot. “Defending ourselves is one thing, Stuart.” Striding to the drive-thru window, she ripped a large paper bag from the stack. “Murder is another. Now, I need those with oil to follow Principal Dunn to the buses. He’ll show you which ones to fill up so we can leave. Have our armed people stand by the station, out of sight. We don’t want to provoke a firefight.”
Eddie set the shotgun on his shoulder. “But we can return fire if they shoot first?”
“Yes. Fine.” She planned to be far away by the time they arrived. Which meant she needed more information. “I’ll need a walkie and want an update on where they are and how fast they’re coming.”
“They have weapons.” Stuart shouted. “They’ll shoot you as soon as they see you.”
She forced her jaw to relax. God forgive her, it was so tempting to just leave them here. Nine more miles. Nine more miles to the soldiers. “Confirm if they have weapons. Long range. Not bats and such.”
She had no doubt they were a threat, but so was Stuart’s hysteria.
Six people with a gallon jug of oil in each hand averted their eyes as they shuffled around Stuart and jogged toward the principal.
“Follow me!” The principal waved his pistol, adjusted the handkerchief covering his face and raced out the door.
Audra threaded the bag over the napkin holder then wedged her finger under the napkins and lifted them into the sack. “I need the rest of you to gather up any more oil and, when that runs out, paper products before making your way to the buses.”
Setting his shotgun within reach on the counter, Eddie stuffed more take-out bags with utensils, salt and pepper and condiments. “You heard her. Let’s move it people!”
No one else budged. She rubbed her forehead then grabbed another sack and filled it with ketchup. If they didn’t help, they didn’t go. The skin between her shoulder blades itched. It was a nice idea, but she couldn’t live with herself if she put in in practice.
An accusing finger emerged from the shadowy kitchen. The swollen ball at the joint spoke of painful arthritis. Age lined the old man’s face like a map to hard to reach places. “You brought this upon us! They had left us in peace until you arrived.”
They hadn’t been safe before. She folded the top of the bag holding the ketchup then dumped the salt, pepper and sweetener into a fresh one. “It’s possible. The buses are noisy.” Especially, when this post-Redaction world was devoid of electricity. “They certainly would have noticed them in the parking lot. They’re painted yellow to draw your attention.”
Not that she would apologize. The bumble bee colors had been designed to protect the children. Who knew the world would go to pot and turn it on its ear. As for the danger, she made a calculated risk when she pulled in, plus she hadn’t known they’d hidden inside. Shaking out a new bag, she raked in the utensils. “If we all work together, we’ll get out of here faster.”
Stuart wedged his fingers through his hair, until it stood up in brown spikes. “You have to shoot them! They’ll just follow us.”
“Do they have vehicles?” Eddie lined up the bags on the counter in front of his weapon.
Audra quickly cleared the rest of the supplies and added her bags to the line. Now she had to go into the back, through his mannequin people. Wiping her damp hands on her jeans, she faced the darkness.
Stuart licked his lips. “Well, no…”
“Then we can out run them.” Fleeing was far better than stooping to barbarism. “But we can’t out run them without fuel. Please direct your people to carry out the oil.”
Near the bathrooms, her mother nodded and smiled softly. Bowing her head, she whispered into the ear of the preteen boy who stood directly in front of her. He grabbed the hand of the younger kids waiting next to him and shuffled forward, grabbing a sack as he passed. The next child followed his example as did the one after until all the ones who’d used the facilities all filed passed.
At least, some people followed her direction. The others would need to if they expected to survive. Unclipping the walkie at her waist, she switched it on. Still dead. Darn it. No wonder she hadn’t received an update. She glared at Stuart. The time for dinking around had come to an end.
“Everyone grab as much cooking oil as you can carry.”
Silence greeted her request.
What were they statues? She clapped her hands. “Now, people!”
Three women squeezed between the fry area. Blanket slings bulged from their bellies and backs. Shoulders stooped under the weight of the gallons of golden oil.
One with a toddler clinging to the bloodied hem of her skirt paused. “This gets us a ticket on the bus?”
Audra smiled and set her hand on the cold metal of the fry station. Ten of the forty were helping. Things were looking up. “Absolutely.”
The cortege rounded the counter just as Principal Dunn jogged through the side door. His mask hung under his nose; his hands remained empty. Panting, he bent over, one hand on his knee and held out a walkie. “Buses are gassed up with three gallons each but we’ve still got seventeen bodies to unload.”
“Get as many off as you can. We can unload the rest, if we need to stop and refuel.” On the SanTan freeway where it was safe, or God willing, with the soldiers.
“You okay with me helping?” Walking to the lobby, Eddie cradled his shotgun but his gaze stuck on Stuart.
And leave her alone with the do-nothings? No, but duty called. She squared her shoulders. “Sure.”
He snatched the walkie from the principal’s hand before tossing it to her. “Call if you need…anything, Princess.”
She caught the warm plastic with the thump.
After touching the muzzle of his shotgun to his forehead, Eddie sprinted outside, followed closely by the principal.
Six more people emerged from the back. Three more middle-aged adults each carried a box containing four gallons of cooking oil. Pepperoni pizza acne scarred the chin, cheeks and nose of a teen girl. She held a snot-nosed baby on one hip and the hand of a boy missing his two front teeth.
“We carry for them.” The last woman sucked back her dentures after she spoke.
She inhaled slowly, fighting for calm. Perhaps, she’d come on a bit strong if they’d thought she’d leave children behind. “Thank you.” Leaning back, she caught sight of her mother by the bathrooms. Two lines of children waited patiently by the wall. “Mom, how much longer until everyone is finished with their business?”
Jacqueline counted heads then her fingers. “The last dozen should be wrapping up now. Then I’ll do a sweep and we’ll return to our busses.”
Fabric rustled in the kitchen. People grunted. Finally, they seemed to be moving.
At last, some good news. Holding the walkie to her mouth, she pressed the talk button. “Are the visitors still on their way?”
Two men in soot-stained dress shirts and torn slacks marched by carrying a box of cooking oil. Two gray-haired women with half dressed preschoolers hobbled after them.
More than halfway there. With her free hand, she shook the flashlight then tried the power button. No light.
“Yep,” Eddie chirped. “And we’ve got a confirmation of weapons–rifles and shotguns.”
She shook the flashlight again. No luck. Dang it, how was she to see in the back?
“How far out are they?”
Stuart bumped her. “Here.”
She stared at the finger-thick flashlight.
He twisted it and a beam of light lasered through the darkness.
“They’re gathering across the field,” Eddie reported.
“There’s no more oil.” A woman wailed. “Does that mean we have to stay here and die?”
Audra gritted her teeth. An ache started at her jaw and tightened the skin on her scalp. Patience. She could do this. It was just for a little while longer. They would reach the soldiers tonight.
“Just grab anything that can be of use–utensils, condiments, paper.” Especially paper. She’d give her soul for actual toilet paper. Squeezing between the counter and the people with boxes filing by, she scanned the room. The light flashed a circle on the yellow grease. Darn but she wished they had time to pump it. “Principal Dunn reported that the visitors were on their way.”
“Two scouts are converging on our position.” Voices murmured underneath Eddie’s statement. “The rest seem like they’re waiting in the back and their numbers are growing.” Static crackled in the silence. “Oh, Principal Dunn says to let you know that the bodies have been moved to their final resting place.”
Wading deeper into the kitchen, she swept the light over the sandwich wrappers. Those wouldn’t be of much use. Sweat beaded her forehead. She inhaled the stale, fetid air of closely packed bodies. “How close are the scouts?”
“Two hundred yards or so.”
“And the rest?”
“Roughly two klicks.”
“In English, please.” Turning, she eyed the shiny grill then the space around it. Her mouth watered despite the body odor. Buns. Hamburger buns. She waited for a break in the group before lunging forward. The light aimed at the ceiling when she clawed a plastic bag off the shelf.
“Little more than a mile, Princess.”
A mile gave them time. “Good. Keep the weapons hidden.” She thrust the packaging into waiting arms. Using the light, she motioned for the next person to grab the other bag of buns. “I don’t want them to know we’re armed.”
“Why not? It might make ’em think twice before taking us on.”
Was she the only one who remembered they had children present? “It will probably provoke them and bring the rest of the thug-uglies running.”
As God was her witness, everyone with her would make it to the soldiers.
“If they shoot first…”
“Then you can shoot back, but until then just watch and wait. We’re almost done here.” She swept her flashlight across the back wall.
Four senior citizens clutched their belongings with liver-spotted hands. A woman with blue hair and white roots held up her left hand. A diamond glittered on her thin finger. “There’s nothing left to carry but I have jewelry. I can pay.”
Sweet Jesus. Their faces swam before Audra blinked back her tears. How could they think she’d make them pay for a place on the bus? She said that to get people moving, to break them out of their fear-induced stupor and break that helpless feeling. She shone the beam on the closed door next to the freezer. “Let’s check the manager’s office.”
In her day, they’d stored toilet paper and hand towels in there. Plenty of stuff to carry, so these good folks would think they’ve earned their keep.
A stooped old man clawed at the silver knob before opening the door.
She spotlighted a full bag of toilet tissue and a box of hand towels. “See? Now between the four of you, I think you can carry the rest.”
Without a word, a man entered and divvied up the items. When they each had an armful, they popped and creaked by. She stepped through a cloud of eucalyptus-scented air and swept the light over the top shelves.
“I’ve never seen anyone take charge like that before.” Stuart’s voice sounded overly loud in the cramped space.
Ignoring the training manuals and accounting stuff, she focused on the three gallon jugs of bleach. Those they could use. “You’ve obviously forgotten what elementary school was like.”
“You were a teacher before…”
Before the world ended. “Yes. English.”
Bending, she wrapped her fingers around the handle and yanked. Liquid sloshed around the half empty bottle. She’d carry this one and since his hands were empty, he could lug the other two. “Grab those.”
He brushed her arm as he passed. “You must have been great at it.”
She’d sucked at it. Her students all hated her and the parents constantly complained about her being unreasonable. Sweeping her hand over the desk, she grabbed the pens before pinching a couple legal pads. She eyed the cups before dismissing them.
“Yo, Princess, the scouts have caught sight of Principal Desperado and his pistol.”
Her heart stumbled over a beat. “What are they doing?”
“Returning to the main unit.”
Using the edge of the pad, she closed the manager’s door. “Is the big group moving out?”
Good then they didn’t have a way to communicate over long distances. At least that worked in their favor. “We’re coming out.”
Swearing filled the line. “You and Prince Charming better hurry. They’re on the run.”
Run? Why were they running? “Toward their group?”
Oh God. One minute they were moving away, the next they were heading for them. Why? She chased after the circle of light bobbing around the kitchen. “Start the buses and prepare to move out.”
She swerved around the registers before checking the bathrooms. Empty. The children must be on the bus.
Stuart leapt over the counter. “They won’t leave without me, will they?”
“What about you?” Her mother called over the walkie.
Stuart cleared the side door threshold without looking back.
Such a gentleman.
“I’m almost there.” A pen dropped from her hand and pinged on the tile. She slowed. Ahhh, they could have used that to teach the kids while they traveled. Her sneakers squeaked as she passed the beverage station.
“Dunn and Pecos fall back to the bus.” Eddie shouted through the walkie.
She sprinted into the watery sunshine, sucking her face mask into her mouth. Two shots rang out. Someone screamed.
“Get everyone down. Get everyone down!” Mrs. Rodriguez’s shout punctured the air and blitzed through the walkie.
Air brakes screeched and the second bus lurched forward.
“Audra was supposed to drive the first bus. We can’t leave with it blocking the road.”
“I can drive.” Faye Eichmann gunned the engine of the first bus. She never glanced Audra’s way as she skated passed the drive-thru.
Dropping the bottles of bleach, Stuart threw himself at the open door as the next bus rumbled by.
“Princess, they’re coming in hot. You better have your royal pain in the ass aboard.”
She was trying! With a loud pop, glass shattered behind her. She drew up short as another bus cut in front of her. Three down, two to go. Coughing on the overpowering scent of bleach, she leapt forward when the taillights cleared her.
The fourth bus skimmed her heels. Her mother’s pale face stared at her from the driver’s seat of the fifth bus. With the door open, it drifted forward.
Deputy Pecos and Principal Dunn loaded their weapons as they raced around the corner of the gas station. Eddie followed their example when he appeared. Bullets smashed into wood. Shells tinkled on the ground. “They started coming faster when they saw the first bus move.”
She took the steps two at time before dumping her goodies on the seat behind the driver. “What happened to the scouts?”
The Principal and Deputy leapt aboard. She kneeled on the seat as they rushed to the back.
Following the others, the fourth bus jumped the curb and picked up speed down the freeway onramp.
“Dead.” Eddie’s gas mask dangled from his chin as he climbed the stairs. “Dunn may act like a douche but he can shoot.”
Mother closed the doors and pressed the gas pedal. The bus lurched forward. She grasped the upholstered seat back and steadied herself.
Glass shattered and metal pinged. A rifle report boomed inside the bus.
“You’re not going to get us, you bastards!” The principal yelled.
“Best get down, Princess.” Bracing his feet apart, Eddie palmed the back of her head and pushed her face toward the cushion.
Cool air whistled inside when he lowered the window. Loose plastic flapped. The bus rocked as it bounced over the curb. When he removed his hand, she glanced up.
The shotgun barrel rested on the window sill. Eddie pulled the trigger.
The blast shook her eardrums. Sticking her fingers in her ears, she melted onto the dirty floor, sliding toward the driver as they descended the on ramp.
The bus picked up speed as it reached the freeway and closed the gap between them and the rest of the convoy.
Please, God, let them reach the soldiers soon.