The Yellowstone High
November 10, 2017
Thanks for stopping by.
As you may or may not know, the following is a short story. I set it in one of my favorite genres: Survival. I also added screwed up characters to lend it something. What, I'm not so sure.
At any rate I hope you like it.
"The End is Nigh..." maybe...but she continues to rumble...
On Wednesday, September 19, 2018, the super-volcano beneath Yellowstone National Park, in the United States, estimated to have been larger than all of Mexico, belched its hellfire.
Nobody was ready it. How could they be?
Ash and oil are hard to wash off. Blood is easier.
These were Mac's tired thoughts as he stared at his caked hands. An actual reasonable thought for the first time in days, he mused. The dope must be wearing off. He shrugged. That could be remedied.
Mac splashed cold water onto his face from the stopped-up sink and blinked back the sting of it. Chunks of floating ice stared back at him, bobbing in a murky sea of red. Blood from his bullet wound. He's been trying to wash it and the cold water seemed to help.
“Awh, God Da...!”
“Don't say it! You know I hate it!" Pam yelled. She was trying to tune in a TV station. Pam was huddled on her bed, blankets wadded at her feet, hands on her head, pressing her temples.
"Nothing," she hissed. "Still nothing..."
“I put out my joint, Mac replied.” The bud steamed and the amber glow of it faded, like his mood. "Not again." He flicked it, blew on it, then gave up.
“This is a no smoking room,” she said. A Jesus Christ Cross hung over the door. She pointed.
Mac shrugged again. Oh well.
“Do you think anyone cares anymore?” Mac asked. "I mean, what difference does it make now? We are dead anyway -- at the end of the God..." He let it go. Let the anger freeze in the air.
She let out a short whimper and tossed the TV remote onto the bed. "Still no stations. Oh my..."
Pam looked around the room. Two queen beds, a small table, a floor lamp. Standard motel room, she knew. “Probably the last time we’ll ever stay in a motel. One with electricity anyway and clean sheets and," she saw a stain in the carpet, "bloody carpets."
Mac’s shirt was caked with sludge. Ash and mud from the parking lot. Streaks of grime and soot made his hair resemble a soggy mop, dipped in glue, then freeze dried. It would have been comical if not for the dried blood on his neck.
Acid rain was something new.
He was using a washcloth. “Dammit!” he yelled.
"Do you hear me?!" Pam yelled.
"Look at the floors...look at your leg! You are still bleeding."
"I feel fine," he said. Mac was thinking about a toke and how it would smooth this whole thing out, but the joint was out now, and wet. How to dry it?
The smell of cheap motel soap and the running water was somehow comforting to Pam. Something normal in a world turned hellish. A world where volcanic eruptions were now commonplace and heated water, a luxury. But not pain and not blood, and certainly not hunger.
So thirsty, she felt. Pam's mood soured again. Driven, no sleep, not enough food and always the incredibly parched throat. It felt like a million needles reaching into her chest.
"Unless we are out of Kansas, we aren't gonna make it," she said.
"We'll make it," Mac replied. "I got extra gas still. We got some more food. And baby, we are way past Kansas. I drove all night. You nodded off -- you slept."
She looked away.
"Saw some lakes and rivers last night too," he offered.
Pam raised her head.
"They were...they were...I guess you could say they were boiling."
She stared. Stunned. To tired and too scared to speak. Just a whimper.
"Yep," Mac continued. "Boiling. It looked worse than those waves -- those tsunamis -- that hit Oregon after the big one -- that 9.9 quake. Yellowstone eruptions, what a damned mess."
“How many eruptions have there been?” Pam asked. She was still quivering, but it was more from the cold now.
Mac was balancing the wet joint on the edge of the toilet. “Hope it drys,” he said. The bloody washcloth in his hand was dripping on the worn carpet. Watery blood.
“What?” he asked.
“You are worried about your wet dope and not the blood all over the carpet? Not to mention that the freaking world is ending! That Wyoming is a molten lava sea?! Not to mention that you have a bullet in your left leg," Pam finished. She folded her arms, stifled a whimper. The chill air seemed to hold the moment, encase it.
If only she could hold onto a single moment, she wondered. Stay here, forever, in this sleazy, unknown highway motel, until it all got better.
Mac was looking at his damp joint then back at Pam. He didn't know how to respond. He leaned against the wall, his leg was throbbing again. He needed to get the bullet out soon.
Finally Mac said, “Jesus, Pam. Who the hell cares now? If it's the end of the world, then we should still try to make the best of it, right? Still try to live for Christ's sake!"
Mac tossed the washcloth onto the TV stand. It stuck there, steaming, a momentary pendulum of gore. "I’m just trying to survive here…keep us going.” He limped toward the other bed. Literally fell on it, not caring about staining it.
"We should take you to a hospital. You are gonna bleed to death."
"Sure," Mac said. I'll just dial 911 or drive to the Emergency Room. Oh wait, everything is closed or covered in fifty feet of ash west of here."
Mac sat up on the bed. "Besides, I tightened the rag. The bleeding seems to be slowing. I just need to stay off of it for awhile."
"It'll get infected, Mac. We need to do something," Pam responded, knowing full well that Mac wouldn't let her look at his wound.
He laid back down. "Not yet. Maybe tomorrow, if we can get to a better place."
"How about this town?" Pam asked.
"This isn't a town, Pam. It's a highway motel run by some old coot who probably doesn't even listen to the news. It's just some freak storm to him."
"I think everyone knows," she said.
"The old coot will wait till the ash keeps piling on. Then he'll get it. They all get it, eventually." Mac shifted on the bed, grunted in pain, opening his wound.
"Did you hear me?" Pam asked.
"Yes. But no, I ain't going to look for a hospital, yet."
“Shut up!” She turned her back. Folded her arms again. Wanted there to be some news. Any news. Not this perpetual silence. This frozen, suffocating gloom where the soon-to-be-dead shuffled by in shell shock. People covered in layers of clothing and plastic, pushing carts or dragging makeshift sleighs over the icy black mush. Dead and dying. Bleeders, like Mac,
The moments stretched into a short eternity. It was better this way for Pam. A reprieve from the reality of hell. An escape.
Pam thought of the cabin again. Those were good thoughts. The cabin on the top of the mountain in Georgia and the color of the fall trees and the fresh forest breezes. Those soft colorful leaves wandering over the rocks and onto the driveway. Silence and pink dawns. The snows that came on Thanksgiving, white and crisp, blanketing the mountains. Mac on the porch, in his robe, since they had stayed in bed all day, grilling steaks and drinking wine and talking and dreaming and laughing and naked and smoking his...the dream faded.
Mac was back up, trying to wash again. He would have taken a shower, but it didn’t work and besides, the water was freezing and only occasionally would it warm.
He finally broke the silence. “You gonna cry again?”
Pam was whimpering now and Mac felt bad about it.
“I'm sorry." He waited for her to say something, but Pam remained silent, almost in a daze.
"We should leave,” Mac said. “We’ve been here too long and the cold is getting worse. Gotta move more south I think.”
He was worried, she knew. About his leg. About Yellowstone's volcanoes. About his dad in Colorado. About her. She had to snap out of it. Reject the gloom forming like some heavy stone, deep in her soul.
Time was short and Mac was coping the best way he knew how: pot. It seemed to help him focus and keep his panic at bay. And he was a good man, even with his crutch.
She looked at his leg again. He was hiding his pain.
But Pam knew she was losing it. She could feel the rising panic of it. The oddly peaceful and yet, frightening finality of her own life ending, far too soon. A draining and a dull nothingness, sucking away, until, eventually, she would be part of it.
At the same time, none of it seemed real. She was merely an actor in some horrible play. A play that needed to end so she could go to work tomorrow and come home and smoke some weed with Mac and deliver the mail.
Pam drew away from the abyss that was her mind.
“Is it fixed?” Pam squinted, trying read Mac's expression. It seemed as if he had just said something, but she couldn't recall anything.
He let it go. “Yes. It was just a drive belt. There was a spare under the seat. It’s running as good as it can, I guess.”
Mac toweled his beard, now three days growth. His eyes betrayed concern, darting between the gun on the sink’s edge and Pam. She still sat on the bed, wrapped in extra blankets now, shivering, thinking, hopelessly hopeful.
“Will it run long enough?” she asked.
“Long enough for what?” He was examining his bud.
“To get us there.” She was biting her lower lip now.
He held her stare.“I’m honest.”
“What does that mean?” Pam asked.
“There is no freaking 'there' Pam. It’s just driving. Trying to stay as far from all the damned eruptions as we can. Trying to find some place warmer. A place where we don’t breathe glass. A place to...”
Mac turned, picked up the gun from the sink and shoved it in his belt. He examined his damp dope again. Cursed under his breath.
“This sucks. If I take it outside it’s gonna freeze solid." He paused. "Icy grass.” He wondered how that would taste. Sharp? Bitter?
She shook her head. Mac was in his own world. A bloody towel tourniquet cinched around his leg now and he was bitching about his dope. He was always somewhere else. Some pleasant reality away from here.
Maybe that’s why he was always happy or maybe it was the dope. Great, I’m in love with a doper at the end of human civilization. At the end of the world -- I'm in love?
“Do we have to leave, Mac?”
"You wanna go back?"
She thought about the last thing she saw back home. People pulling big trailers during the day, by hand. Two to a trailer. The trailers were loaded with junk. Food and supplies. They were strung out for miles on the highways. Hundreds of cart-animal humans, since the horses were all dead and eaten. Fistfights and gunfights. Motorcycle gangs charging in, killing, stealing and riding away after the bullets started to fly.
Mac had driven by at speed. To the sound of gunshots more than once. Eyes staring from the huddled masses of walking dead.
"No, I don't want to go back," she finally said. "I can't -- we can't do that again, ever."
Mac felt sorry for her. "We need to go now. Less people to see us driving.”
He was right. So few cars even worked. The older ones seemed fine and people were killing for them. News reports over the radio told of mobs fighting on freeways, police stations on fire and the National Guard abandoning the cities. Mayhem and death. Unreal.
“Maybe we can hang out here for a few days. Call our parents. See if this thing -- Yellowstone -- calms down.” She was hopeful. Hands shaking.
Mac sat on the chair across from her now. Adjusted the gun at his back. Lowered his head.
“Listen.” He leaned forward. “This is not going to stop. Not soon anyway. That’s why I came to your job to get you." He rubbed his wound. "It's different now..."
She remembered. It was three days ago. He’d parked outside the Post Office and knocked on the back door. Her supervisor almost called the cops.
“John almost called the police on you.”
“You and him on are a first named basis again?”
“Not now, Mac.”
The relationship was supposed have been over, but maybe it wasn’t Mac thought. And yet, she chose to leave with him.
Pam had jumped in the Mac's truck without so much as a goodbye. Even left the back door open as John stood there staring up at the darkening sky, ash already falling.
"The cops would have never showed, Pam. Too busy packing their junk and heading out of town. Too worried about their own survival."
“You didn’t let me pack much and my cat…”
“There was no time to look for him. People were frigging' shooting each other, Pam!"
He pointed at his leg. "This happened at the hardware store, Pam! Remember? I just wanted batteries and that guy started killing everyone. The owner --"
"I know," Pam responded. "You were lucky to make it out of there. I'm sorry."
Mac was massaging his neck. Too many hours staring into the gray gloom, driving. Squinting and trying not to breathe the air too much.
“And the cell phones don’t work…” She sobbed again. “This is all so...so bad,” she said. “So final. I still can’t believe it. I refuse to let it go...”
“Listen!” He stood. “We don’t have time for this. I’m leaving. I’m getting in that truck and heading south. As far as I can get and as fast as that thing will go.”
Mac's face was etched in red wrinkles, partly blood and partly acid burns, from the rain, but at least he was cleaner.
“You know where I’m going,” he said.
“I know.” She wanted to go there too.
She rolled from the bed, legs still sore. Her jeans were hanging over the chair where she had left them. She pulled them on, letting her mind replay the surreal scenes from only yesterday. It seemed like years ago.
Frozen lakes. Iced over rivers. Ash covered towns. Bubbling rivers. Mac fighting to keep the truck on the road, tires slipping on the black sludge. Gun shots. People screaming from stalled cars. A woman standing in the ash, up to her knees, holding a gray baby. More snow flurries, the gray sleet, then silence. Miles of nothing. Just the ever growing blanket of ash. Then more people. Long parades of black robed humans, moving slowly.
Pam lifted her backpack from the floor. “I need to pee.”
He backed out of the bathroom. Let her do her business.
“It’s freezing in here!” she said. "And the sink... Are you sure you can drive?"
"Yep. Just waiting on you, Pumpkin."
Mac looked at his joint again. It was stiffening. Small greenish crystals were forming on the paper. And why did it matter anyway?
Like Pam said. It was just his way of coping. It had always been his way. Maybe it was time to go cold-turkey. On second thought, screw that, Mac thought.
Mac found the motel’s hair dryer. Started to blow dry his hair and his joint, but the power started to flicker.
“Fricking useless,” he said under his breath.
Mac pictured the two story stone cabin again. The steep mountain and the secluded valley nearby. Georgia, he thought again. Sweet Georgia. Could they survive there?
Mac wondered, as another rumble shook the motel. Then the power went out for the last time. The darkness came again.
Pam let out a whimper.
"You okay?" Mac asked. He lite a match.
"I'm fine," she said, "but the toilet just, it's cracked."
When she finished she found him in the darkness, standing by the curtains. He was watching the nearly black parking lot filled with cars, all smothered in their own private ash piles.
The street lights were out. Even the motel’s office was dark, but some of the motel’s emergency lights were casting a flickering silvery glow over the ash laden trees. Outlining the roof-line that was already heavy with days of crusted ash.
Soon this motel would be forgotten, covered in volcanic fallout. Perhaps it would be discovered by some future civilization. Skeletons huddled in rooms.
She waited. “I fell asleep, I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Mac said. "Let’s do this before some jerk steals our truck. Some crackhead.”
“Please. All the crackheads are dead from overdoses by now. It’s just the potheads you should be worried about," Pam said.
“Great, I’ll call you the ‘End-of-the-World Comic.’ You can do Vegas. Oh sorry, Vegas is a smoking cinder now. Maybe Atlantic City. Oh crap again...dead from the acid rain.”
Mac lit another match. She could see him pat his pocket, where his joint was drying.
“I see you saved your baby.” She meant his last joint.
"Oh you know I did." His face flicked in the dimness of the quickly dying match.
He switched to serious mode. “A few guys just walked by. They scoped-out our truck. They went into one of the other rooms.”
He closed the curtain. Darkness again. “Are you ready?”
She knew the routine. Go directly to the truck. Get in. Stare straight ahead. Don’t make eye contact with anyone, but keep watch. Let Mac wipe the ash from the windshield. Hold his gun.
Then drive. Drive and watch for the army. Take short cuts that turned into long cuts and watch for the cops. Avoid the gangs. Avoid the volcanoes. Wear breathing masks. Find gas and water and food, and drive again. And again.
He opened the motel room door. The parking lot was empty. A dull sky, smeared with gray sleet. Just a hint of the new day at the ghostly edges of the mountains and that weird muffled sound. That dead, world’s end quietness.
"Ouch!" Pam squealed.
"It's so cold out here it burns my skin." Pam turned and gathered up the blankets from both of the beds.
"It probably an early morning acid mist," he said. "My eyes are stinging under this mask. Let's hurry."
Mac looked at her holding the blankets, but said nothing.
She hesitated. Was all of this worth it? The air seemed thicker today as well. Like it had substance.
Wouldn’t it have been easier to just have died at home, Pam asked herself? Maybe die in this motel? Wrap up in some blankets an just nod off? Take some pills and call it a life? She could not shake the feeling of doom.
“Now,” he said. He held her arm. Guided her to the truck through icy ashy slush. She could hear him grunting in pain with each step. The bullet in his leg still hurt him.
He opened the rusted passenger door, then helped her up. She wrapped herself with the blankets and let out a quick breath. A small ice cloud hovered before her eyes, beneath her breathing mask. It was pink, but she didn’t tell Mac. Didn't let him see. He would freak out anyway. Probably look for a hospital that wasn’t open. They'd both end up dead of exposure in some strange city or become victims of some roving band of thieves.
She watched him wipe away the thick wet ash from the windshield then the slush from the hood of the truck, then the grill. He was kicking the tires when she saw people poking their heads from their darkened motel doors. Curious maybe.
She knocked on the windshield and Mac got the message.
“It’s much colder than yesterday,” she said as he hopped in. Flakes of snow and ash covered his hair again.He didn't bother the brush it off.
“We are being watched.” She motioned at the motel. One door was open. Someone had a flashlight.
Mac could see the fear in her eyes. A nod, then he started the truck. It took longer than usual, but it finally caught.
Damn, they made these old trucks good, he thought. As if to answer his thoughts, the engine choked and almost died, but then rumbled to a steady growl. They both looked at each other. Blue-gray smoke belched from the tail pipe. Not good, Mac knew.
“We need gas.” The needle was showing just over a half of a tank.
"You said we had some," Pam said.
"Some, yes, but we need more."
“We need food,” she answered, then sniffled. “I’m hungry and you said we’d stop for food. That was yesterday.”
“Fix your mask,” he said. “Pinch that strip on your nose before you destroy your lungs.” But they were already aching her. Still, she said nothing.
“Please. Coughing up blood hurts worse.” She thought of the pink mist she breathed out moments before. How long did she have? Should she tell Mac?
She pinched her mask as Mac had asked, just as another motel room door opened. A hand waved to them, beckoned for them to do what? To wait? Did that person have a rifle?
“Screw that,” Mac said. “We need to go and we can’t trust anybody.”
Mac gunned the engine and old truck leapt forward and around the corner just as they both heard the crack of gunfire. He headed for the front of the motel as the truck slipped through the mucky sludge, then made a second turn.
If the man gave chase, he would have a bit of distance to go on foot and that should give them time to get to the highway.
Just then, other gunshots erupted. It sounded like a gun battle.
Mac looked a Pam as he fought to control the truck. "The office is up here," he said.
"You're stopping?" she asked.
"Yep. They are fighting out back." He looked at the dark windows of the office. "They are supposed to have a continental breakfast here."
He drove slowly now, toward the office around the building, the old truck smoking from its exhaust. The engine was struggling now, almost choking. Just a few more hours Betsy, he thought. He patted the dashboard.
He stopped at the office window, but it was dark inside. The sign on the door indicated “cash only.”
"Maybe we should just go," Pam said.
"No, I want to offer," he said. "You never know. People can be helpful. Keep an eye out. Maybe we can get some food."
"Hurry," she hissed, then took his gun. The truck grumbled, but did not stall.
Mac got out, staggered for a second, then knocked on the office door. The stoop had been recently cleared of ash.
There was no answer and the door was locked, but he could swear that someone was sitting just behind the counter in the darkness, watching.
Mac waited a moment, shifted onto his good leg, his boots sinking into the ash-sludge next to the window. Still nothing. The silhouette moved once, but made no effort to answer the door.
Mac saw a glint of metal and that was enough.
He dropped the keys in the overnight slot and decided to leave his credit card in the slot as well.
Then he saw that one of the motel’s occupants was making his way toward them on foot. He instinctively reached for his gun, but hesitated. Pam had the gun.
“Aren’t they open?” Pam asked when Mac returned.
He shook his head.
“How do we pay?"
“I left him one of my credit cards,” Mac said, pressing the accelerator and pulling onto the highway.
“But he’ll have your name.”
“Does it matter now? Besides, I think he had a gun.”
She didn’t say anything.
“Someone was walking up on us,” he said.
“You didn’t see him?”
“Back at the office. When I was trying to pay up. He came outta that room. The same guy who scoped out the truck earlier. The one who was waving at us, I think.”
“Maybe he needed a ride. Maybe we should…”
“No! He had a rifle."
She frowned, looked out into the morning gloom of ashy sleet. Pouted."He didn't shoot."
"Maybe he was out of bullets."
“Another beautiful day,” Pam said staring in the dull gray morning. Her voice came muffled through the gas mask. She sounded weak.
They pulled onto the interstate and got up to speed. Mac kept the truck in the middle, along older tracks. The highway resembled a dirt road now and no longer the four lane intestate. Odd lumps, covered in ash lined the road. Some were askew or blocking the lanes, but Mac worked around them, always careful to make certain there were no people hiding in wait.
At times the highway would clear and the collections of dead cars, parked along the sides, were not even dusty, just empty. As if owners had abandoned them and fled. But where did they go?
The highway was empty at other times. They had the road completely to themselves. They only saw one other vehicle for hours at one point, an RV, parked in a rest area, but no people. Just an open door and a dog sitting on the stoop.
“How is it that this old truck runs and the newer cars don’t?” she finally asked. The RV was fresh on her mind. That little dog.
“I think the military did something,” he said. “Electronics.”
“Why would they do that?” She was glaring at him.
“To prevent people from clogging up the roads. To stop travelers I guess.” He was watching the road, thinking. He patted his pocket again. His joint.
“Or the Russians did it.” She looked away. “EMP’d the hell out of us after Yellowstone erupted.”
“Why would the Russians do that?” He kept glancing at her, when she didn’t respond.
“Hit us while we are down?” he added.
“To keep Americans from fleeing to Europe. Can you imagine the chaos? The pressure on resources, say in England?”
“Europe is just as screwed,” Mac said. “The acid rain and volcanic winter is hitting them just as hard. There are worldwide eruptions now. You saw the news.”
Pam was crying. “But not in England. Europe only has a few. It’s us, we’re dead, not Europe.”
“I’m sorry.” He waited. Let it hang in the air.
“We’ll figure this out. We’ll find a way," finally said.
“I just want find safety,” she responded. "That's all."
Mac could see her tears in the reflection of the passenger's window now.
“I know,” he said after some moments. “We’ll get there.”
“You know,” Mac answered.
They headed southeast and pulled in at a roadside diner a few hours later. The truck's fuel gauge was showing below "E" now. Mac didn't want to use the fuel cans yet, so he was stretching it.
The diner had its own gas station set some distance away. Probably easy access for truckers, Mac figured. There was a single car was parked in the lot. Another oldie, but goody, thought Mac.
“Leave it to the Southerners,” he said. “Volcanoes don’t scare them. “Look.” He pointed at the the sign.
Pam had a difficult time understanding him. He lifted his mask for a second and repeated what he had said.
Mac opened the driver's door. The air was cold, but not as icy as before. A strange mist twirled around the gas pumps. It seemed to shine like water, but it was not wet.
“Breakfast Bar,” Mac said through his gas mask as his goggles seemed to sparkle now.
The lights were on inside, which was amazing, and the pumps were working. Must be a generator Mac thought. He started to fill up the tank, leaning on his good leg. He seemed better now.
“Should I go inside?” she asked. Pam was looking around. She had stepped from the truck and was stretching her legs, then she stopped, froze. She wiped her goggles with the back her coat sleeve.
“What’s the matter?” Mac asked.
“If they are running on generator power, why are they wasting fuel on lights in the daytime?” She asked.
He looked around. The sky was lighter here, but not dark enough to waste good fuel for lights. She was right.
“It’s peaceful. Quiet," he said. "Too quiet. Keep alert." These days, peaceful and quiet wasn’t always a good thing.
“Could be a trap. Let me fill up first and we'll check it out together.” Still, it was too calm here.
When he finished, Mac locked the truck, cinched the tarp over the supplies in the bed of the truck and they went in. He used Pam as his human crutch since his leg was getting worse, not better. This was a surprise to Pam.
Mac could feel Pam's weakness. She was stumbling. "You need to eat," he said.
Inside, the diner was empty. The food warmers were all on and steam was rising from the water underneath, but there was no food in the trays. An empty buffet greeted them. Even the coffee machine was on, but the pot was full of hot water and not coffee.
Mac grabbed the handle of the pot. “We could make tea.” he had found two tea bags.
“Where’s the manager?” she asked. "Hello!"
"No," Mac said. "Let's be quiet." He stood still. Waited. No response.
They walked into the lobby. Nobody. Empty seats. Some scuffs on the floor near the entrance. People had been here, but when?
Just then the interior lighting flickered, then steadied. They could hear music, soft elevator tunes.
A bubble gum machine was tippled over, broken. All the gum had been removed and the glass kicked haphazardly into a corner.
Mac limped into the restaurant. Empty plates. Like people had eaten, but the waitress never cleaned up. Forks and table knives. Everything was a mess as if everyone had left in a hurry very recently.
The kitchen was also empty. All the food was gone. Empty trays baking on gas stoves. A few empty cans were scattered on the carpet. A salt shaker lay broken on the counter.
Mac checked the refrigerators in the back, but they were empty.
“They left in a hurry.” Mac was leaning against the counter. “They even took the condiments.” He showed her an empty sugar box. "No mustard even."
The place was a mess. Utensils spilled on the floor. An overturned stove.
"Were they robbed?" Mac was slowly turning.
“They’re gone,” Pam said. At least that's what Mac thought he heard. She was hard to understand in her gas mask.
She was still scanning the restaurant hoping someone had left their meal. Nothing. One empty plate with toast crumbs. She thought about licking the plate, but didn't.
“Yeah, Mac said. “Why did they leave the lights on?”
“Where are you going?” Pam asked.
“To the register.”
“You gonna rob the place?”
“Again with the comedy," he said. He drew his gun.
She smiled. then frowned, when the gun came out.
He limped down a short hall. At the end he saw a woman's bare foot and painted toenails. Mac stopped short.
"What's the matter?"
He held his hand up. “Wait here.” Mac pointed his gun and slid forward, his back to the wall now.
“What is it?” she whispered, ducking low.
He pointed to the feet. Painted toenails she could now see. Pam remained still, nodded. She kept watching one of the feet, but it did not move.
Mac moved slowly, listening. He rounded the corner and saw her there. A woman. Middle aged, brown hair, a neat hole in her forehead and nearly dried blood. She’d been shot dead and left sitting against the counter. An awkward pose with a confused grimace still on her lips.
Mac didn't hesitate. “Let’s go, now,” he said in a hushed voice. He hobbled quickly back, grabbing Pam by the hand.
“The truck,” he whispered. "Now." His calm momentarily abandoning him.
“What? What’s going on?”
“She was shot -- killed.” Pam looked back toward the register.
"Wait!" Pam said.
"Did you check for food?"
His eyes, behind his goggles, said it all.
Pam turned, jogged to the register, saw the woman, then also saw the box.
Mac came limping behind her. "They've scavenged the area already. There's nothing."
Pam reached behind the dead woman. She had been concealing something after all. A box.
Mac helped her lift the woman off of her chair. Underneath was the box. Pam pulled it out and set it on the counter where large amounts of cash lay spread out. Cash that was now worthless.
She peered inside the box. Canned goods, bottles of water, flashlights and a handgun.
"Looks like she never had time to get her gun," Mac said. "But let's go. I don't like this."
They both immediately drank the water, temporarily pulling their masks to the side.
At the front window, Mac looked out at the gas pumps. The truck was still there, but so was a second car. It had just pulled up.
“Dammit," Mac said under his breath. "Crap, crap, crap," he hissed.
“What now?” Pam asked. She saw the station wagon.
“Maybe they are just getting gas, like us,” he said.
"Look at them," Mac ordered.
Pam stared hard. Just a station wagon. Shadows of people in the back. A figure in the passengers front, scanning the diner. It was a her. She had not yet looked this way.
“Here.” He handed her a plastic bag. “Fill this.”
“Those.” Mac pointed at the contents of the box.
Pam stuffed the bag.
"Let's walk back. Be as calm as you can." Mac walked on his own, not wanting to show weakness.
They walked to their truck, as causally as they could. Mac had removed his blood soaked towel from his leg and was doing a good job of disguising his limp. He used Pam to block their view as they seemingly strolled toward their pick-up.
A man from the new car, an old station wagon, was filling his tank. He momentarily stiffened, then nodded. He glanced at the bag Pam was holding. He had quick eyes. Alert.
The air temperature was dropping again and the sky was growing darker. The strange and colorful mist was still blowing around the fuel pumps.
As they walked, Pam saw that there were four of them all together. None of the people from the station wagon were wearing face masks.
Pam's own face mask made her appear like a haggard survivalist, she knew, but the ignorance of these people was something, she thought. The air was full of microscopic glass. Didn't they know?
“I’ll be damned! These are working,” the man from the station wagon said. He patted the fuel handle. Tried to make conversation. His nose was bleeding and he was coughing.
Mac nodded. "Yep."
The man wiped his nose. You could see his mental tumblers clicking away. I am bleeding, he was thinking. Then he ignored it and glanced at Pam again.
You are dying, you idiot, Pam thought.
Mac shook his head at Pam. Get in.
She jumped into the truck, keeping an eye on the new people. They seemed cagey, on edge and definitely sick. Much worse than her. End stage and desperate, but making a show of it.
The man’s wife, if she was his wife, was holding a shotgun. She stood close to him now, as he filled the car's tank. Again, no face mask and little bits of dried blood, now freshening, were on her upper lip. She licked it away.
Two others were sitting in the backseat, wrapped in thick sweaters. They were deep in conversation -- maybe an argument. Both looked sick, with balled up bloodied rags over their mouths. When they saw Mac, they went stiff, quieted, stared.
It seemed that these travelers had not expected anyone, but neither had Mac.
“Where you heading?” It was the driver of the station wagon. He was finishing up with the fuel. “Nice old truck. Does it run well?”
Mac looked at him. Considered. Knew he was stalling. The woman with the shot gun was moving to one side.
Mac recognized the flanking maneuver.
“Away,” he answered. And, “she’s burning oil. How's your ride?"
Mac had to buy time. Confuse them. Chang their minds. He knew what was coming.
The man glanced at the station wagon. "Not much better." he put his hands behind his back.
“They open?” The woman was talking now. Her shotgun held almost too casually. She used it to point at the diner. By now she had strolled to the far fuel pump. Used it for cover.
Pam was closest. She was watching the woman carefully and squeezing Mac’s arm, steadied him, as he fumbled with the keys.
“They are open,” Pam said. “Clerk’s inside.”
Mac started and was revving the truck’s engine now. Clouds of blue smoke billowed from the rattling exhaust. Proving his point.
“Not much business,” the shotgun lady said. She was looking in the direction of the single parked car. The one Mac had seen when they had first arrived.
But something seemed to change their minds. Pam pressed on.
“They just drove up in that car.” Pam lied. “They are at the buffet, I think.” She was still coaxing the shotgun lady, but the man had turned to look at the restaurant where the lights were still on. Small red lamps cast a dim glow inside and steam was coming from the roof area in back.
The woman with the shotgun was shaking now. “Buffet? They are serving breakfast? Really?” You could tell she was hungry and the mere promise of food was too much.
Pam nodded. “Try the Western Omelet.” She lied. "You should stop by more often."
"I know," the man replied. He nodded at the shotgun woman and she moved back.
Mac had his gun on his lap, but out of sight.
“They have food and water?” The driver was asking now, part of his body was obscured by the woman. More stalling?
“Of course,” Pam lied again. “They are doing okay here.”
The couple seemed to consider something. The woman nodded at the man this time.
“Yep,” Mac replied. “They are still stocked, but be careful. The man and his kids from that car, she pointed at the parked vehicle, are armed.” He lied as well. There was only the dead woman inside.
The group seemed to visibly relax. Ash began to fall again and it annoyed the woman with the shotgun. She coughed and her nose was bleeding worse now. She wiped it away with her sleeve then looked back.
“Why are you both wearing masks?” He shotgun was still held at her side.
Mac looked at Pam. Then froze.
“Germs,” Pam said finally.
The woman giggled. “That’s the least of our problems. You know they nuked Russia, right? We got irradiated clouds coming." She looked at the restaurant again.
With that, the woman with the shotgun faced the diner. She seemed to be the leader. The others followed suit and relaxed.
Mac was watching the driver of the station wagon. He had been standing beside the woman. A gun had materialized in his hand. He was holding it down to his side, looking from the diner to Mac and tapping the handgun against his thigh.
Mac nodded, still keeping his gun just out of sight. He pointed at the diner with his other hand. “Good fixins,” he said.
The man started to back away, smiling. “Breakfast is on me Sam!” he said to the shotgun woman.
The shotgun woman was now walking toward the diner. Trying to appear as casual as she could, with a shotgun at her side. She was wiping her nose with the back of her hand and glancing back at them.
Pam looked over at Mac. The shotgun woman was thinking things through. She has some reservations, but let it go.
“They take cash?” The man interrupted from the backseat of the station wagon. He had rolled his window down now.
Pam looked down at him. He was hiding something, smiling too broadly.
“Only bullets,” she said. Mac raised his gun, pointed it at the diner.
The man frowned. “Maybe we’ll just see about that.”
“Good luck,” Mac said as he pulled away, waiting for it. But no shots came. Instead they could she the woman with the shotgun, still facing the diner. Slowly walking inside.
The two others ducked out of the station wagon and started to rush toward the front door of the diner. They took positions on either side of the front door.
Mac and Pam took the first curve at speed, tires protesting and losing sight of the group at the diner. They breathed a sigh of relief then.
“Close call,” Mac said.
“What are they gonna do when they realize that the diner is empty and there's a dead woman inside?” Pam asked.
“That we have food and water.”
He brooded about that for a minute then abruptly pulled over. They were just passing a small rocky ridge full of tall pines. There was a switchback road there.
“What are you doing?”
He reached behind the seat and pulled out his rifle. Lifted it over her head.
“Mac?” Pam was insistent now. "Where are you going?"
“I’m just going to shoot out their tires. Gotta find a good position." The truck's tires were slipping up the gray ice.
“No,” she said.
“We can’t let them follow.” He paused, placed his hand on her cheek. “I don’t like to kill people, but I can’t let them follow us. You saw how they were.”
“I know.” She was thinking. “Can’t we outrun them? Take a side road?”
“In this thing? Besides, we are close to the cabin. They will track us down.”
“Can we hide?”
“No time, baby. We gotta stay on track.”
“Then...just do it.” Pam felt deflated. "I just want to be there, you know?"
"I know, " Mac replied. "Me too, but we got to be safe." He could see the change in her.
“You want me to kill them?”
She didn’t immediately answer. “Can you shoot out the gasoline pumps from here?"
“You watch too many movies. That might not work.” He tapped his pocket.
“Really? You are worried about your joint at a time like this?”
“Just try it. Shoot at the gasoline pumps. If it works, people might avoid the area and those thugs won’t be able to hurt anyone else.”
She was becoming more ruthless. A change Mac did not like, but at least she seemed stronger now.
“They are just surviving like us.”
“Not like us,” Pam answered. “Not like us at all.”
Mac climbed the ridge, grunting in pain all the way. He hadn't replaced his towel tourniquet and he was bleeding profusely now. They had hidden the truck behind a small rise.
At the top they could see them. The group with the station wagon was still at the diner. They were breaking into the parked car now and searching around the back. It was obvious that they were angry.
One was gesturing up the road, toward the way they had gone. No food or water. They just knew the goods were on his truck and they weren't far off.
"They are going to come," Mac said. He felt resigned to the task. Knew what it would mean if they came this way. Hard to miss his tire tracks in the fresh ash covered roads.
“Can you do it?” Pam asked. She was beside him, shivering in the icy wind. Charcoal smudges on her cheeks gave her a native look.
“You look like my squaw,” he said.
“What, Pale Face?" And his face really was pale she noticed.
“Never mind.” He propped himself up on elbows and started to sight them it.
A light damp ash was falling. As they landed on Mac’s skin, they tingled. He dusted them away. “God how I love acid sleet,” he said.
She helped him spot the gasoline pumps.
"Can you hit it from here?" Pam asked.
His first shot echoed loudly, catching them off guard, but it ricocheted off the metal of the gasoline pump and nothing happened.
After a moment, they people below scrambled for cover.
“They don’t see us yet,” Mac said. But he wasn’t so sure.
The next shot missed the gasoline pumps, but pierced their station wagon’s radiator, sending out a jet of steam. "One car done," he said.
“Good,” Pam said. “Let’s go.”
The ground began to shift under them. Rocks and scree cascaded down. Some it struck the truck.
“These quakes are getting closer together," Mac said.
One of the men near the diner ran across the parking lot then. He was firing his handgun at them. They'd been spotted.
The rocks around Mac sounded like they we being hammered. Bits of stone chewed at his arm. Mac ducked, pulling Pam with him. They found a better position.
“They know where we are now.” Pam could see them taking quick peeks at the ridge. “One of them is coming. We don’t have much time.”
"Commentary," Mac say. "Always narrating."
Mac shot at the gasoline pumps two more times. Each time, he changed positions. But he failed to ignite the the pumps. There were no explosions, just the steam now slowing to an ebb, from the station wagon’s radiator.
“I think I disabled their station wagon.”
"Do the other one." She pointed at the only other car. "Disable it. It might stop them for now."
"I need a better angle," Mac responded. He rolled closer, but the position was more exposed.
“I can’t see that guy any more. The one that shot at us. It won’t take him long if he climbs up. We should go.” Pam started to scoot backward in the gray slush covered stones.
Mac was aiming again. He fired. The windshield of the second car blew out and its new occupant jumped to the ground. Mac fired again. He wanted to disable both cars for sure.
“We need to go!” Pam was screaming now, pointing. A second guy was now running up the road. “Hurry! They are coming two ways now. Jesus Mac!"
Mac uttered a curse and followed Pam to the truck at a dead run. He ignored the pain in his leg. She tumbled once, but recovered.
How Mac was able to run, Pam couldn't fathom, but his pant leg was red and frozen.
Mac tossed the rifle on Pam’s lap and started the truck as she scrambled in and struggled with her seat-belt.
“Ouch! That thing is hot.” She lifted the barrel of his rifle with her blanket.
“I hear him,” she said. “One of them is coming up the road, shooting.” Her eyes were tracing the road backward, but the trees blocked her view. Bullets smacked into the stony ridge behind them, then struck the truck, then the rear glass window of the cab shattered.
The truck’s engine roared to life as Mac floored it, fishtailing along the narrow dirt lane below the ridge. Pam clung to the seat, the bag of cans shifting at her feet.
The dirt lane changed to gravel a moment later and small stones were swept aside at each tight curve. Bottles of water tumbled from the bed of the truck along with firewood, as Mac fought for control.
More gunshots, but they went side.
Just as they hit the main road, nearly sliding too far, they saw the man who had been running from the store. It was the driver. He rounded the bend and came to a kneeling position in the middle of the road.
He had a rifle. He was taking careful aim.
Mac began to swerve back and forth as much as he dared.
Mac ducked instinctively just as the man fired. A flash of light, then the boom. The bullet pierced the cab’s rear window again, but not the windshield.
“Awe nuts!” Mac yelled as they sped away, tires finally biting on the ash slippery road. Pam was slumped forward. He pulled her up as she moaned, leaning against the passenger's window.
They were climbing higher and winding around the back of the mountain where the sleet became thicker. He heard another shot and after that, just the hypnotic whine of the truck's tires.
Pam was leaning against the passenger door panting holding her shoulder where a crimson stain was beginning to spread.
"Hold on baby...hold on." Mac choked on his own words. "Stupid, stupid, stupid, I..."
Pam shook her head slowly. "I'm okay..."The words came softly now.
"Liar," he said. He kept looking at her.
"I should have not done that --"
"It's okay," she whispered.
The minutes whined by as they climbed into the mountains as fast as Mac dared to drive. Taking the curves too fast, but the old truck held, grunted and sputtered, but pressed on.
“We’re almost there, baby,” Mac said as he pushed the old truck up a gravel road to the two story cabin where they had spent that magical week alone, last Thanksgiving.
He carried Pam to the back porch and helped her sit on the wooden chair and look at the Great Smoky Mountains, as the earth rumbled beneath them yet again.
“I can’t see anything, Mac, I’m sorry.” She whispered something else, but it was lost on him. Muffled in her mask.
“They are there honey, they’re just a little ashy. The Great Smoky Mountains. We are on top of the world.” He was holding her. Caressing her chin.
She pulled her mask away. He pulled his off.
“This is where you are, isn’t it?” Her voice trailed away.
“Yes. Where we are,” he replied. “Where we’ve always been." Mac started to get up. "I need to get some bandages..."
Pam grabbed his arm, the grip was intense, but her hand was deathly cold. She pulled him close.
Mac sat stiffly on the deckchair beside her, his own wound reopening again. He felt for his joint and saw that it was dry now. He laughed, flicked it away, choked once and lay still.
Pam smiled and turned her head, then reached out for the sky that was no longer there.
The wind began to howl.
The small hidden valley, decorated with joyful cabins, hidden in the trees, filled with color, as a magnificent wall of heat swept the mountains away.
© 2017 Jack Shorebird