The Yellowstone High
"The End is Nigh..."
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, erupted. It was the most power volcanic eruption in recorded history.
This is the story about a couple. Mac and Pam. He's a loser in love, a mechanic going nowhere and she is a divorced postal employee, always finding the wrong man, until it mattered most. Two mismatched souls about to face a mismatched life.
A sickle shaped speck of dark ash, the size of an infant’s fingernail, materialized on the windshield. It rocked in the gentle breeze, the same breeze, that was pushing the gray dust between the parked cars. The speck sat for a moment, as if considering something, then slipped easily down the wiper blade, and promptly disintegrated.
A moment later, Mac thought he heard thunder and a quick scan of the sky revealed an ominous and ugly gray plume in the distance. Odd, he thought. There were no forest fires in the area, but that wasn’t out of the question. Local drought conditions made it an almost certainty. But there was ash and there was ash. This short-lived ash seemed out of place.
Mac didn’t immediately notice the gray dust now gently blowing around the Chinese Buffet, making the cheap red paper lanterns jostle each other for position in front of the glass doors. The large windows were being layered in gray film, so fine as to almost be unnoticeable. Warm eddies of sulfurous air betrayed the true purpose of the putrid coating of ash, however. Presently, covering the Chinese Buffet, the parking lot and now the squat bushes near the main road, the dust like ash was a warning of things to come.
Mac was waiting for Pam, in a borrowed pick-up truck. The customer had left it for an overnight job. A tune-up that Mac had completed before closing. So, as any good employee should do, after the boss goes home, is to lock-up and take the customer's truck for a test drive and have it back before the boss returns the next morning. At least that’s the excuse Mac used. The truth was, his car had been repossessed and he had been borrowing customer’s cars these past few weeks. Best of all, no car payments, Mac mused.
Pam was due in a half an hour. Enough time for Mac to burn one and listen to some tunes. He’d parked the old truck ass-in, on the far side of the lot, not near any other cars and he’d cracked the windows to let the fumes out. The marijuana smoke drifted out and the annoying dust wafted in, however.
Mac looked around casually, mimed a phone call, but nobody was paying attention to him. He brushed the gathering specks of gray from his shoulder and blew his own smoke out of the truck’s window. The Chinese Buffet’s doors were closed, and nobody was hanging around out front, so Mac figured he had a few minutes to enjoy himself.
As Mac leaned back, suddenly, the music on the radio stopped. He looked down, irritated, but it was still on the right station. He reached to adjust it, but the Emergency Broadcasting Network siren came on. A series of honks then a long howl. Great, Mac thought.
Mac took another hit. Waited. The parking lot seemed to dim around him. Then his cell phone went haywire – started honking in tune with the radio. Emergency Messages began to scroll. He caught one word: “Yellowstone.” Then another: “eruption.”
Mac froze, the joint dying on his lips. Yellowstone? Oh no.
“This is a message from the Emergency Broadcast System.” The robotic voice boomed from the truck’s radio now. “This is an actual emergency.
“At 3:57 P.M., Mountain Time, the Caldera at Yellowstone National Park began to expand and erupt. This is an evacuation order. Move now. Gather all needed supplies. Water, food, medicine, gasoline. Move to a safe area, away from ash clouds…” Static poured in, then the broadcast continued. “Evacuate immediately.” This repeated several more times.
A few people had exited the buffet now and were standing outside, staring at the sky, pointing. Mac turned to look up. Where a moment before, there had been a plume of low gray clouds in the distance, there was something else entirely. It was a tower of black-gray smoke, but it was impossibly large. A monster of roiling fire and blackness, as if Satan himself had broken the earth wide open and belched his new world upon the old. It was mesmerizing and at once, galvanizing. A horizon of looming blackness, accompanied by a low and constant rumbling.
Mac looked at his hands. They were shaking. The sign over the Chinese Buffet unexpectedly came crashing down into the parking lot and jolted him into action. He reacted by starting the truck, its engine catching glances from the people, now milling around the parking lot. Abject fear painted their faces. A woman kneeling over the broken sign, toppled over. The earthquake was getting worse.
Mac revved the old truck’s engine, but it was choking.
The emergency broadcast went on. “Presently, the lava dome is growing at an alarming rate and there are reports of earthquakes, ash clouds and pyroclastic flows in the surrounding communities. The ash clouds are currently rising into the upper atmosphere and will spread out over a wide area. The prevailing winds should push the ash, soot and potential poisonous gasses in a circular pattern. Minimum safe distance is 500 miles. Repeat, minimum safe distance is 500 miles. Evacuation is mandatory for these areas…”
By then Mac was reeling. He’d spit out his joint and shoved the truck into drive, just as more people began to pour from the buffet. They were falling and then crawling, scattering into their cars, screaming at each other. Tires were squealing on the ash-dust roads. The smell of sulfur was in the air. Pandemonium.
The truck reluctantly cooperated. Why hadn’t the tune-up worked? Mac thought. Was it the ash? How the hell are we going to get 500 miles away?
Mac was the first one out of the parking lot, but other cars began barrelling down the road, ignoring stops signs, passing him, horns blaring. From everywhere at once, the cars came. Many headed to the nearest gasoline station. Long lines formed as if by magic. Groups of gray people began to fight for the gasoline in small drifts of ash. Grocery store parking lots bloomed with cars, people scrambling inside, trudging hastily through strange smoking piles of brown sand. The quake continued to shake the buildings, but the masses of people were still going inside. Are they nuts? Mac wondered?
Mac was horrified as one of the big stores collapsed. A pancake of rubble in seconds. The clouds of cement dust mixing with the falling ash and that peculiar dirt that had piled in from no where. He drove by, trying to pay more attention to the splitting road and the panicked drivers. He had to make it to Pam. There was no time for heroics.
As if in answer, what could only be described as a house sized meteor, slammed into the side of the hospital, as Mac drove by. The upper half of the ten-story structure was sheared away, leaving a smoking, cauterized, black wound.
Only the trees seemed to cope. Dancing in the quake but remaining upright, as gas and water lines burst around them. At once, the stores that remained standing, that had been lighted inside, went dark. Then the earthquake stopped as suddenly as it had begun. The rumbling gave way to car horns, explosions and distant screams. The city had changed in an instant. What had once been a quiet western town, was now being slowly erased under a deepening blanket of pumice and ash.
Mac kept driving. The truck’s tires leaving impressions in a carpet of dust. He had one thing on his mind: Pam. He headed to her job. Get her first, then head to the garage for the extra gas, he told himself. Open the snack machine in the back. His mind was ticking off things he had to do. I need batteries, he thought. I need guns.
A few days later…and many miles away.
Ash and oil seeped into his wound. Mac thought that the dope would last longer than it did, but it was only taking the edge off. The throbbing was still there. He stared at his ash-caked hands, felt his leg wound pulse. Each little stab of pain was a shock. He shrugged. That could be remedied.
Mac splashed cold water in his face. The stopped-up sink was thick with slush and blood. He made a finger-hole in the red ice bath each time he dipped. A murky mixture of filth to sting his eyes. Mac blinked back a sharp pain and gripped the sides of sink. The larger chunks of floating ice resembled giant shark's teeth, bloody and ragged.
Watery blood from his wound soaked Mac's pant leg. He'd been trying to wash it again and the cold water seemed to help dull the ache, but the dope was wearing off.
“Awh, God Damn...!”
“Don't say it! You know I hate it!" Pam yelled. She was trying to tune in a TV station. She was huddled on her bed, blankets wadded at her feet, hands on her head, pressing her temples and still freezing. How cold can it get?
Mac turned. "What?"
"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, gave up. He steered his mind away from the pain, worried more about Pam now.
“This is a non smoking room,” she said.
Mac shrugged again. Oh well. "We are dead anyway -- at the end of the God..." He let it go. Let the anger freeze like the air in the room.
Pam whimpered and tossed the TV remote onto the bed. "Still no stations. Oh my..."
Two worn queen beds, a small scratched table and a floor lamp, minus its shade, sat on a tanned carpet. The carpet had seen better years. A standard motel room in a no name town, Pam thought.
“Probably the last time we’ll ever stay in a motel. One with electricity anyway, and clean sheets and," she saw a stain, "bloody carpets."
Mac’s shirt was caked with sludge from the wet ash and mud from the parking lot. His leg wound was still bleeding. Streaks of grime and soot in his hair completed post-apocalyptic look. It would have been comical if not for the blood.
Acid rain was something new too. It completed the ensemble. Bloody hair.
Mac was using a washcloth again. “Dammit!” he yelled.
"Do you hear me?!" Pam yelled.
"Look at the carpet...look at your leg! You are still bleeding."
"I feel fine," he lied. 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 comforting to Pam. Something normal in a world turned upside down. A world where volcanic eruptions were common and heated water, a luxury. But not pain and not blood, and certainly not thirst. Hunger was secondary, almost a luxury.
Pam's mood soured. She was driven, with no sleep, except for the times she finally passed out. Exhausted. "Unless we are out of Kansas, we aren't gonna make it," she said.
"We'll make it," Mac responded. "I got extra gas. We got some more food. And baby, we are way past Kansas, just like Dorothy." He looked over his shoulder. Pam was sobbing. "I drove all night. You nodded off -- you slept like the dead."
She looked away. Not funny.
"Saw some lakes and rivers last night too," he offered.
Pam raised her eyes. Finally, some good news,but Mac's expression was dour.
"They were...they were...I guess you could say they were boiling lakes and black muddy rivers. Reminded me of something." He tapped his lower lip, then looked at her. "Hell!"
She stared. Too stunned to reply. Just a whimper.
"Yep," Mac continued. "Boiling. It looked worse than those waves -- those tsunamis -- that hit Oregon after the big one. Those Yellowstone eruptions, what a damned mess, huh?"
“How many eruptions have there been?” Pam finally asked. She was still shaking, but it wasn't from the cold now.
Mac was balancing his wet joint on the edge of the toilet. “Hope it drys,” he said. He was holding a bloody washcloth as he came out of the bathroom. It dripped on the worn carpet.
“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! And you have a bullet in your left leg," Pam finished. She folded her arms, swallowed her whimper.
The chill air seemed to hold the moment, suck the energy out of it. That's what sleazy, unknown highway motels do at the end-of-the-world, Pam thought. Take the last sense of humanity you have left and remind you why you are here, hundreds of miles from a home that no longer exists.
Mac looked at his damp joint, then back at Pam. He leaned against the wall, placed his hand over his bad leg. It was throbbing again. The bullet needed to come out soon, but that was impossible, he knew. There were no open hospitals. Everyone was still running. Fleeing the ash clouds and acid rains. Trying to find a place, any place that offered the least bit of hope. A respite from the death and destruction, and the human mayhem that seemed to thrive in its wake.
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!" He was holding up his joint, examining it. Then he grunted in pain.
"I should cauterize this." He was holding his leg.
"Not till the bullet is out," she replied.
Mac tossed the blood soaked washcloth onto the TV stand. It stuck there, steaming, a momentary pendulum of gore, then it fell to the carpet and started to freeze. "I’m just trying to survive here…keep us going.” He limped toward the other bed. Literally fell on it, not caring about his bleeding leg.
Pam glanced at the washcloth on the carpet. It was a cake of ice already. "We should take you to a hospital. You are gonna bleed to death. And it's too cold here."
He rolled his head on the pillow. "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."
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 said, knowing full well that Mac wouldn't let her look at his wound. She could tell it was swelling.
He spoke from the bed. "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 guy 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 guy 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. "Maybe he's just trying to help."
"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. Silence seeped into room.
Pam wanted 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. The dead and dying along the roads. Acid rain bleeders, like Mac,
The moments stretched into a short eternity. Mac snored.
It was better this way for Pam. A reprieve from the reality, even if only for a few minutes at a motel, where it snowed ash.
Mac suddenly awoke, listening. "How long was I out?"
"A few minutes," Pam answered.
"Did you hear anything?"
"The truck" Mac responded.
At that moment they both heard muffled voices. The voices went by the door, then faded. Pam looked at Mac in the dim light from the cracked bathroom door.
"It'll be okay for now. People just walked by, outside." He closed his eyes again.
She let Mac rest. Snore. It was worse now with the polluted air and the fierce cold. Pam thought about the cabin again. Let her mind find that soft place between rest and sleep.
Pam was standing on the back porch of the cabin on the top of the mountain, in Georgia. There was the colorful autumn foliage below. She was inhaling the fresh mountain breezes filtered through the evening forest. Crisp sounds, blowing leaves wandering over the rocks that surrounded the flattened chunk of land where cabin stood, overlooking this slice of creation. The driveway sloped down, curved to the left and disappeared. Silence now and the pink of dusk painting the bare peaks and distant rooftops. The snows that came on Thanksgiving, white and crisp, blanketing the tall trees. The birds that flitted near the cabin. Nearly frozen wasps, climbing slowly along the porch. A huge mug of coffee steaming on the antique table. Whisky forgotten on the railing, its rich amber liquid still and bright in the afternoon sun. A good book, dog-eared and waiting. Mac on the porch, in his worn robe, since they had stayed in bed all day, grilling steaks and drinking wine and talking and dreaming and laughing and later, naked and smoking his...the dream faded.
She awoke again. Sitting in that cold bed, wrapped in blankets. Mac was snoring still, dragging each breath in. Deflating like a old balloon, pinched at the top.
"We've been sleeping," Pam said.
Mac was up instantly. "We need to get our stuff together. Look." He pointed at her eyebrows. They were frosted over. "We need to go before dawn."
She reached up. Pam was upset again. "I was in a dead sleep. I'm sorry."
He waited for her to say something else, but she remained silent. "We should leave,” he said. “We’ve been here too long and the cold is getting worse. My toes are numb."
Mac limped over to the window, pulled a sliver of curtain open. "It's not raining ash right now. Gotta move more south I think. The warm air might stop all this acid rain or make it worse. Head for the cabin, I think. And hope nobody is there."
He was worried, she knew. About his leg. About Yellowstone's volcanoes. About his dad in Colorado. About her. If others had the same idea about the secluded cabin, with the old manual well, solar panels, a garden and stacks of canned goods in the basement.
They had rented the cabin last year. The owner was survivalist, but he was stuck in New York when Yellowstone blew. They'd called him shortly afterwards. Obtained permission, just when the big quake hit there. From Maine to Delaware was a nightmare now. People who survived were struggling with the ash clouds and the acid rain. Parts of New Jersey had reported "steaming pumice hail." The highways in the area were out of commission and the airports, closed indefinitely.
Pam had to snap out of it. Push the suffocating gloom aside. 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 pot crutch.
She looked at his leg again. He was hiding his pain. But Pam knew she was losing it too. She could feel the rising panic in him, but also his calm focus. It was as if the struggle made him better and her, worse. The oddly peaceful and yet, frightening finality of her own life ending, far too soon. That was what she thought about. A draining and a dull nothingness, sucking it away, until, eventually, she would be part of it.
Not Mac. He kept pushing harder. Kept drilling it down and making plans, minute by minute. It must have been his past military training, she thought. Reinvent. Solve the problem. Then move. He was her center now.
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 and feed her cat. Pam drew away from the abyss again. Focus. I wish I had some liquor.
“Is it fixed?” Pam squinted, trying read Mac's expression. Had he just said something? He had been outside for the last half and hour. She had kept watch at the window.
“Yes. It was the a drive belt. There was a spare under the seat. It’s running as good as it can, I guess. Whoever owned it before was a fixer-upper kind of guy. There are all kinds of spare parts a tools and even two extra spare tires.”
"A prepper?" she asked.
"Dunno." 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.
“Will it run long enough?” she asked.
“Long enough for what?” He was examining his bud and his hands were still shaking from the cold.
“To get us there.” She bit her lip.
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. Maybe the cabin. Maybe not. A place where we don’t breathe glass and bleed in the rain. A place to...” He stopped. He was being a freaked-out idiot, he knew.
Mac turned, picked up the gun from the sink and shoved it in his belt. Grunted as the cold steel barrel touched his bare skin. He had heard a noise outside again and moved to the window. He scanned the parking lot, then retreated to the bathroom. 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?
Pam shook her head. Mac was in his own world. A bloody towel tourniquet cinched around his leg and he was bitching about his dope. 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, Pam thought.
“Can we go back, Mac?”
"You wanna go back?"
She thought about the last thing she saw back home. Ungodly masses of people with whatever belongings they thought they might need, trudging along the highways. Sitting at bus terminals and train stations. Mobs of unruly, ashy, and bloody people. Fighting, killing and dying.
Most cars weren't working. Overfilled carts and trailers or anything with wheels, was being pulled along by the empty dirty faces. They were strung out for miles along the roads, begging for a ride. Sometimes they would stand directly in the path of oncoming cars. Shoot, if the cars didn't stop. Or jump on the hoods and break out the windows with hammers and crowbars, pulling the occupants onto the road. Killing them. Leaving the bodies. Driving away, until they too became the victims.
Mac had to swerve and turn around numerous times, just get out of the city. It was as if everyone wanted the truck. He refused to pass the long lines of haggard people. They were too desperate. Too insane.
Then they were gone. They were driving in the lonely gray. The windshield wipers batting the ash away. Occasionally, a pumice like rain pummeled the truck and tried to choke its engine. Then it would clear and they'd pass another wandering line of carts and people, but at a distance. Or flash by huge crowds huddled under the overpasses and men with guns, pointing too late. Soon, Mac began to avoid the interstates altogether. It seemed to be where everyone was.
The funeral marches came next. The surface streets and avenues. Smaller groups. Not as dangerous as they were sick.
At first Mac drove by slowly. One by one. Huddle by huddle. They respected him and he them. Each time, things seemed to become more desperate, however. The groups began to grow in size. A few changed to a few dozen, then a few hundred, then thousands. Cart-animal humans and a few horses. Fistfights and gunfights became the norm. Motorcycle gangs charging in, killing, stealing, shooting and riding away.
Mac had started to drive by at speed now, to the sound of gunshots and screams. Few pleaded for him to stop now. It had become the law of the jungle. Take every side road. Use every neighborhood sidewalk. The name of the game was survival. Rural dirt roads were best. Fewer people. And slow down at the bridges, when you saw bodies. Watch out for ambushes.
"No, I don't want to go back," she finally said. "I can't -- we can't do that again, ever. That was hell."
Mac felt sorry for her. "We need to go now. Less people to see us driving. It seems less crazy out here too."
He was right. So few cars even worked. The older ones seemed fine and people were killing for them. There had been few car noises the previous night. A few hours before, a single snowplow had pushed through, its headlights barely visible in the flurries of ash.
News over the radio told of mobs fighting on freeways, police stations on fire and the National Guard abandoning the cities. Mayhem and death and Mac had strangely adapted, with the help of his stash. What worried him more than his bullet wound, though, was running out of dope.
“Maybe we can hang out here for a few days. Call our parents. See if this thing -- Yellowstone -- calms down.” Pam was hopeful. Hands shaking. She answered her own question. "I'm being repetitive, I know."
Mac sat on the chair across from her now. Adjusted the gun at his back, where it was digging into his spine again. He dropped his head.
“Listen," he said. “This is not going to stop. Not soon. 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 had 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, Pam chose to leave with him and not stay with John. That said something, didn't it?
Pam had jumped in the Mac's borrowed 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, and John said we could survive and that they would figure it out..."
Mac interrupted. “There was no time to look for your cat and John is dead now. Our town, hell, the whole area is under a thousand feet of ash now! 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. "I was there. I'm sorry. I just can't believe it. That home is gone and that this damned ash is still chasing us across the country! This is unreal."
She screamed the last word. 'Country.' There was no more country, Mac thought. It was over. Split in half at Yellowstone. Even part of California was now a series of islands in the Pacific. What a difference a week makes, Mac thought. Pacific earthquakes swallowing Alaska with tsunamis. Mexico at war with China. The Northeast in shambles.
Mac was massaging his neck. Too many hours staring into the gray gloom, driving and bleeding. Squinting and trying not to breathe the air too much, even through his gas mask. Speeding around great wads of people, stranded and dying in the perpetual acid rain and ashy snows. Some were frozen statues, already neck deep in gray pumice. Cemented for an eternity.
“And the cell phones don’t work…” Pam sobbed again. “This is all so...so bad,” she said. “So final. I still can’t believe it.”
Mac replied: "I'm going to keep pushing it."
"And for how long?" She held his gaze. "Your leg...I can't be alone..."
“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 a rash of wrinkles. Blood and acid rain burns. “You know where I’m going,” he said.
“I know.” She wanted to go there too.
"Well, if we can't get there, we'll figure things out."
She rolled from the bed, legs stiff and still sore. Her jeans were hanging over the chair where she had left them. She pulled them on as bits of ice fell away and let her mind replay the surreal scenes from yesterday. It seemed like years ago now.
Frozen lakes. Iced over rivers. Ash covered towns. Bubbling ashy snows. 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 suffocating ash. Then more people. Long parades of black robed humans, moving slowly. Marching. Mac flying by them.
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. "I'm peeing on ice. And the sink is frozen. Are you sure you can drive?" Pam's mind seemed to be jumping from one topic to the next, but she couldn't help it.
Mac answered the last question. "Yep. Just waiting on you, Pumpkin."
He 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 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.
Pam exited the bathroom. "What's useless?" She appeared frightened.
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?
Another rumble shook the motel and knocked Mac back to reality. Then the power went out for the last time. A perfect darkness.
Pam let out another whimper. Mac could hear her zipping her jacket.
"You okay?" Mac asked. He lit a match.
"I'm fine," she said, "but the toilet just, it's cracked and leaking."
When she finished dressing, she went to the window. Mac was standing by the curtains, letting the emergency lights from outside bleed into the room. He was watching the nearly black parking lot filled with cars, all smothered in their own private ash piles. A ghastly frozen graveyard of car-bodies. Only their truck was not buried in the gray black mush. Mac had kept it uncovered and ready.
The street lights were out. Even the motel’s office was dark, but some of the motel’s emergency lights were still casting a silvery glow over the ash laden trees. That wouldn't last long, he knew.
The motel's roof was heavy with layers of slush and ice and appeared to be sinking in places. Soon this motel would be forgotten, covered in volcanic fallout. Perhaps it would be discovered by some future civilization. Skeletons embracing, like Pompeii, Mac thought.
"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. She peered into the gloom outside.
“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.”
"At least they are not covered in 50 feet of ash," Pam said.
"Says who?" Mac lit another match. Held it up for light. 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 grin flickered in the match light. At least he could still smile.
He switched to serious mode. “A few guys just walked by. They scoped-out our truck. They went into one of the other rooms there.” Mac pointed to the right.
He closed the curtain. Darkness again. “Are you ready?”
She knew the routine. Go directly to the truck. Get in. Don’t make eye contact with anyone, but keep watch. Let Mac wipe the ash from the windshield. Hold his gun.
Then they would 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. How much longer?
Mac opened the motel room door and ash spilled into the room. The dull sky seemed even dimmer than yesterday. The parking lot was empty. Gray sleet was the order of the morning. Just a hint of a possible sunrise 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's probably an early morning acid mist," he said. "My eyes are stinging under this mask. Let's hurry."
Mac looked at her. Pam was holding the blankets over her head. Her gas mask was on. She looked like a ghoul. A rubber-faced demon.
She hesitated. Is all of this worth it? The air seemed thicker today. Like it had substance. A cold knife in the chest kind of feel. 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, pulled he. Guided her to the truck through icy and ashy slush. She could hear him grunting in pain with each step. The bullet in his leg still hurt him. Her nose tingled.
He opened the rusted passenger door, then helped her in. 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 fall victim to 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 nodded.
“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. He wiped at the big goggle-like lenses of his mask.
“We are being watched.” She nodded at the motel. One door was open. Someone had a flashlight. That someone was signalling them. Flashing the beam at the truck.
Mac could see the fear in Pam's eyes. He nodded, then started the truck. It took longer than usual, but it finally caught. A choking rumble and a belch of smoke from the exhaust.
The flashlight went off.
Damn, they made these old American trucks good, Mac thought. As if to answer his thoughts, the engine choked and almost died, but then growled steadily. They both looked at each other. Blue-gray smoke belched from the tail pipe again. 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 this,” Mac said. “We need to go and we can’t trust anybody.” He shifted the truck into reverse, but nothing happened. The truck didn't move, but Mac could see the white reverse lights come on. He checked the dial. It was on 'R.' He revved the engine and something whined, then clunked.
Someone was coming. It looked like he had a rifle in his hands. He was walking toward the man with the flashlight. They were having words now. The man with flashlight retreated into his room and the man with the rifle then faced them.
Mac revved the engine and heard another clunk then a squeal. The transmission was finally catching and the truck began to roll backwards, slowly. Too slowly.
"Come on! Come on!" Mac yelled. The old truck moved a bit faster now, but the steering seemed frozen in place.
The man with the rifle raised it at them as he came, just now passing the open door where the man with the flashlight had been. Where had he gone? Mac wondered.
Pam started to panic. Scream. Fumbled for Mac's handgun that he had placed on the seat between them, just as a booming sound made them jump. Mac was reaching for his gun at the small of his back, realized it was no longer there and that Pam was trying to hand it to him. They had both looked up at the sound as the truck continued in its straight-line reverse.
The man with the rifle fell forward. The soft thick slushy ash of the parking lot had swallowed him whole. A bare smudge of a shadow marked where his body had fallen.
The man who had retreated earlier, still holding a flashlight, stepped into view under the emergency light. He was now holding a shotgun. He nodded to them, held his left hand up as if he was asking for them to wait and then disappeared into the open doorway again.
"What are you doing!?" Pam screamed. "Turn!"
Mac pulled on the wheel as hard as he could. It suddenly broke free and the truck swerved, then slid to a stop as he braked.
"Go!" she screamed.
Mac gunned the engine and old truck leapt forward, then slid around the corner, just as they both heard the boom of the shotgun again. Pellets struck the side of the truck, just behind Mac and pieces the tail light disintegrated.
Mac headed for the front of the motel as the truck slipped through more sludge, then he made a second turn. The truck's tires were spinning wildly, flinging them from side to side, barely missing the lumps of other cars covered in ash and snow. Mac got it under control -- got himself under control.
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, Mac thought. Maybe even time to stop for minute. He rubbed his steamed up gas mask, from the inside, using his fingers.
"Can you see the office?" he asked.
Just then, other gunshots erupted. It sounded like a gun battle at the motel, but in the back. Mac looked at Pam.
"The office is up there." She motioned at the large, nearly buried building. "You're stopping?" she asked, incredulous.
"Yep. They are fighting out back, not here." He looked at the dark windows of the office. "They are supposed to have a continental breakfast here."
The thought of food changed Pam's mind. Maybe they had a few crazy seconds.
Mac 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. Mac patted the dashboard.
He stopped at the office window, near a mound, that must have been yet another parked car. It was dark inside. The sign on the door indicated 'cash only.' Mac could see a dim emergency light glowing in the lobby. A red glow unable to pierce even the thin mist of sparkling dust -- volcanic glass.
"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. It was like holding a lump of burning coal, it was so cold. The truck grumbled, but did not stall. Pam placed her foot on the accelerator to make sure it would not stall and peered over her shoulder at the way they had come. The truck's heat was still blowing tepid air.
Mac got out, staggered on his bad leg for a second, then limped over to the door and knocked. The stoop had been recently cleared of ash, so someone might be about, he hoped. But there was no answer and the door was locked. Mac could swear that someone was sitting, just behind the counter in the darkness, watching him. The feeble red glow of the emergency light was playing tricks on him, however.
He waited a moment, waved at the shadow behind the counter and shifted onto his good leg, just as his boots began to sink into the ash-sludge. Still nothing. The silhouette seemed to move, but it or he made no effort to answer the door. Mac saw a glint of metal and that was enough. The shadow was probably armed.
He dropped the keys in the overnight slot and decided to leave one of his credit cards in the slot as well. What the hell, he wouldn't need it any longer.
Then Mac spotted a flashlight beam. One of the motel’s occupants was making his way toward them on foot. The shotgun man, Mac thought. 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? Any food?"
“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 and get food. He came outta that same room, I think. The same guy who scoped out the truck earlier. The one who killed that other guy.”
“Maybe he needed a ride. Maybe we should…”
“No! He had a shotgun and probably a rifle now. He shot at us!"
She frowned, looked out into the morning gloom of ashy sleet. "He shot at us?"
"Maybe he was out of bullets," Mac offered. "And I don't care. It's too much of a risk. Besides, you need to get close with shotguns."
“Another beautiful day,” Pam said staring in the dull gray morning. Her voice came muffled through the gas mask. She sounded weak. "Drive on." A blank look now.
They pulled onto the interstate and got up to speed. Mac kept the truck in the middle, along older tire tracks that were already filling with ash and slush. The highway resembled a dirt road now and no longer a four lane intestate.
Odd lumps, covered in ash, lined the road. Some lumps were askew or blocking the lanes, but Mac worked around them, always careful to make certain there were no people hiding in wait. The bigger lumps were cars and Mac tried to ignore the smaller gray lumps he often saw around the cars.
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? Car doors and trunks open, but no people. Sometimes the headlights were still on or the radio, blasting static, was left on.
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 watching passersby. A green field in the distance, but the sky was a ring of molten orange and gray clouds. The eye of the storm.
“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 asked.
“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," Mac finally said.
“I just want find safety first,” she responded. "That's all."
Mac could see her tears. “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.The ash and snow was much thinner here, but the distant gray clouds were hunting still. The earth seemed to vibrate at times, reminding them, pushing them.
"This is weird," Pam said.
There was a single car parked in the lot. Another oldie, but goody, thought Mac. But a foreign job. German, he thought. The diner was a stout affair, but rustic. Inviting to the weary traveler, but obviously over-priced. Touristy items hung from the exterior walls. Flags, twirling wind chimes, a flock of plastic geese, all slightly blackened from volcanic dust.
The gasoline was at least a third more, Mac noticed, but didn't care -- if the pumps worked.
“Leave it to the Southerners,” he said. “Volcanoes don’t scare them. “Look.” He pointed to the big red and white sign. It was blinking. 'Burgers and Fries.'
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. The gravely ground was doused in a effervescent shine. More volcanic glass, Mac suspected.
“Breakfast Bar,” Mac said through his gas mask as his goggles seemed to sparkle now. He wiped it away with a glove, then rubbed it against the steel pole near the gas pumps.
The lights were on inside the diner, 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. There was hope here. Maybe they could stay in the area.
“Should I go inside?” she asked. Pam was looking around and feeling better. Perhaps she would be fine. Just a little volcanic glass in her lungs, she thought. Pam 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.
"How do you know it's a generator?"
"Listen," Pam pointed at the back of the diner. "That's a shed. That's smoke."
He looked around. She was right. There was that rambling sound. A small engine purr and puffs of smoke were coming from shed-like outbuilding. The sky was lighter here, but not dark enough to waste good fuel for lights. She was right. It didn't make sense.
“It’s peaceful. Quiet," he said. "Too quiet." Mac scanned the area. Listened. "Let's keep alert." He continued to pump the gas.
“Could be a trap. Let me fill up first and we'll check it out together.” Still, it was too calm here, he thought.
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 as well. She was stumbling more now.
"You need to eat," he said.
She did feel a bit lightheaded now. "Let's hope."
The smiles that had momentary played across Pam face, fled instantly. An empty buffet and dozens of heat lamps greeted them. 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. Even the coffee machine was on, but the pot was full of hot water and not coffee. There wasn't a soul in the place.
"I knew it," she said.
Mac grabbed the handle of the coffee pot. “We could make tea.” He found two tea bags.
“Where’s the manager?” she asked. "Hello!"
"No," Mac said. "Let's be quiet." He stood still. Waited. There was no response.
They walked into the lobby, slowly. Nobody. Empty seats. Some scuffs on the floor near the entrance. Travel brochures littered the floor. People had been here, but when? And they had been in a hurry.
Just then the interior lighting flickered, then steadied again.
"The generators are probably low on fuel," Mac said. Pam nodded. "We should hurry."
They could hear music, soft elevator tunes and still, the hum generator. A bubble gum machine was tippled over, broken. All the gum had been removed and the broken glass lay haphazardly into a corner. They both stared at it. Food. Even gum.
Mac limped farther into the restaurant. Pam followed. He put his finger up to his lips. Empty plates. 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 and very recently. A few hours ago? Where they chased out?
The kitchen was also empty. All the food was gone. Empty pots baking on gas stoves. A few empty cans were scattered on the carpet. A salt shaker lay broken on the counter. Boxes strewn about, but empty as well. An empty freezer, still cold, with a single cracked egg on the floor, but no cartons.
Mac checked the refrigerators in the back, but they were all empty as well. Only smears of food that had once been there.
“Nothing. 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 near the back. Like there had been a struggle. Utensils spilled on the floor. An overturned stove. A stain on the tiles. Blood, but no bodies, thank God.
"Were they robbed?" Mac was slowly turning. "Looks like a gunfight." He was pointing at a neat hole in the paneling, just beneath wall lamp. Then he noticed more of them.
“They’re gone,” Pam said. At least that's what Mac thought he heard. She was hard to understand in her gas mask.
"Let's be quick," he said. "I'm finding nothing -- maybe some steak knives."
Pam nodded. Held up her hands. She was carrying a small apron. The pockets were full of steak knives.
They checked restaurant hoping someone had left their meal. Nothing. One empty plate with toast crumbs. Pam 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. We've checked everything else and this does not feel right."
“You gonna rob the place?”
“Again with the comedy," he said. He drew his gun. "But..."
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 pink painted toenails. Mac stopped short. Pointed again.
"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. Pam's hair fell over her goggles then.
He pointed to the feet again. Painted toenails. Pam could see them now. She remained still, nodded. The feet were still.
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 was left sitting against the counter. An awkward pose with a confused grin still on her lips. From a distance, she might look normal.
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. "No. You don't understand, the woman, she was..."
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. And I'm telling you, she looks..."
Pam reached behind the dead woman. She had been concealing something after all. A box.
"Help me. And what's wrong?"
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 from the box, temporarily pulling their masks to the side. Mac was staring at the woman again. Then it hit him. The string.
"Look at that." He pointed at the string.
"She was tied there?" Pam asked.
"This is some sort of trap," he said. "We gotta go now!"
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 then. “Maybe they are just getting gas, like us,” she 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.
"It doesn't mean anything," Pam replied. "If they were going to ambush us, they would have come around the back. I think they are just like us, so let's go." She looked frightened.
“Here.” He handed her a plastic bag. “Fill this.”
“Those.” Mac pointed at the contents of the box.
Pam stuffed the bag.
"Wait here a second." Mac turned and limped to the kitchen.
"Where are you going now?" Pam asked. "There's no time."
"Just wait there." He motioned near the window. "Come and get me, if they do something or come this way."
"I'll be back in a second." Mac disappeared into the kitchen. A moment later he returned.
"Now what?" Pam asked.
"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. Giving the new people a wide birth.
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 and seemed on edge.
The air temperature was dropping again and the sky was growing darker. The strange and colorful mist was still blowing around the fuel pumps. Like tiny crystals. Glass, came the realization again. And the new comers were not wearing gas masks.
As they walked, Pam saw that there were four of them all together. At not one of the people from the station wagon were wearing face masks like they were. Stupid, she thought. 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." He kept walking. He also saw the swirling glass, easily mistaken for ice. Mac burped under his mask. A good meal. It sounded odd in the mask and it was fake.
The man filling his tank turned at the sound, then 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. "Darned weird weather," he nodded. "Too cold. Nose bleeds."
You are dying, you idiot, Pam thought.
Mac shook his head at Pam. Get in. No conversation.
Pam understood and jumped into the truck, moving deliberately, keeping an eye on the new people. They seemed cagey to her and definitely sick. Much worse than her. End stage and desperate, but making a show of it. Maybe they just thought it was the cold.
The man’s wife, if she was his wife, was holding a shotgun. That was the first clue that they weren't so stupid. She stood close to him now, as he filled up. Again, no face mask and little bits of dried blood, now freshening, were on her upper lip as well. 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, and stared.
Mac started the truck. Its throaty growl, reassuring. It seemed that these travelers had not expected anyone, but neither had Mac. It was a meeting unexpected, but otherwise normal a week ago. Now everything had changed. If this was an ambush, Mac thought, it was poorly planned.
“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 the man was stalling. The woman with the shot gun was moving to one side. It was getting dicey. Mac recognized the flanking maneuver. He looked at the station wagon's plates. Florida.
“Away,” Mac answered. And, “she’s burning oil. Where you from?" Mac had to buy time. Confuse them. Change their minds. He knew what was coming. The woman was edging farther away. She was trying to get a look in the bed of the truck.
The man glanced at the station wagon. "Not much better here." He put his hands behind his back. "We are from Mississippi. Born and bred."
Mississippi with Florida plates? Mac thought.
“They open?” The woman interrupted. Her shotgun was 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, Mac saw. These were cool operators and she still wanted to see inside his truck, but the bed was covered with a tarp.
Pam was closest. She was watching the woman carefully and squeezing Mac’s arm, steadying him, as he fumbled with his gun.
“They are open,” Pam said. “Clerk’s inside.” She understood the situation. They were outgunned and in a spot. If she could distract them long enough.
Mac was revving the truck’s engine now. Clouds of blue smoke billowed from the rattling exhaust. Proving his point. The woman with the shotgun moved away from the smoke, waving he hand, choking.
“Not much business,” the shotgun lady said. She was looking in the direction of the single parked car, at the diner. 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. Small red lamps cast a dim glow inside and steam was coming from the roof area in back. By all appearances it looked like a open diner.
The woman with the shotgun was shaking now. “Buffet? They are serving breakfast? Really?” 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."
Mac nudged her. Stop talking.
"I know," the man replied, smiling. 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 -- the man -- 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. Tension seemed to ebb away.
“Yep,” Mac replied. “They are still stocked, but be careful. The man and his kids from that car," he pointed at the parked vehicle, "are armed.” He lied as well. There was only the dead woman inside. A woman with the pink toenails that they would soon find. They needed to be long gone by then.
The group seemed to relax now. Ash began to fall again and it annoyed the woman with the shotgun. She coughed and her nose bled worse. She wiped it away with her sleeve then looked back at Pam. Her face was surrounded by a halo of colors. Glass, Pam knew.
“Why are you both wearing masks?” Her shotgun was still 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, then back at them. "And those won't help."
With that, the woman with the shotgun faced the diner. She seemed to be the leader. The man followed suit.
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 food,” he said.
The man started to back away, smiling. “Breakfast is on me Sam!” he said to the shotgun woman. He trotted in her direction.
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 still, and glancing back at them.
Pam looked at Mac, nodded. Now. The shotgun woman was thinking things through. She obviously had some reservations.
Before Mac let the brake go, they saw movement from the back seat of the station wagon. “They take cash?” The man interrupted from the backseat. He had rolled his window down. A rag was hanging from the window. He was hiding something.
Pam looked down at him. A broad smile worked at his grimy features.
“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.Tensing his neck. Gripping the steering wheel too hard.
But no shots came. Instead they could see 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. Both had rifles.
Mac and Pam took the first curve at speed, tires protesting. They lost sight of the group at the diner and breathed a sigh of relief. As they rounded another upward curve, they could see the diner again. Things had changed.
Two trucks had pulled in and a fire fight had erupted. It had been a trap of some sort, but the trappers hadn't counted on a well armed group from the station wagon. Even as they drove, Pam could see the results. The men from the trucks were out gunned and soon, they retreated.
“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.
As if to answer, gunshots came from behind them.
"Jesus, they must have just rushed in shooting," Mac said.
Pam paused. “And we have food and water.”
He brooded about that for a moment then abruptly pulled over. They were just passing a small rocky ridge full of tall pines. There was a switchback road there. It was a rough ride.
“What are you doing now?" she asked.
He reached behind the seat and pulled out his rifle. Lifted it over her head.
“Mac?” Pam was insistent now. "Where are we going?" The truck was precariously close to the edge.
“I’m just going to shoot out their tires. Gotta find a good position." The truck's tires were slipping on the gray ice now. It was difficult to go any farther up. Mac stopped.
“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 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. And she was thinking ahead. Survival mode.
“They are just surviving like us.”
“Not like us,” Pam answered. “Not like us at all.”
He nodded. Time to go.
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. Two of them 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. Apparently, the fact that they'd just been attacked by men in trucks hadn't fazed them. They just knew the goods were on Mac's 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. White and pinched, just under his mask.
“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.
The people below scrambled for cover. The two breaking into the parked car, ducked behind it, but one of them decided to climb inside. Mac could also see movement reflected in the diner's windows.
“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 down," he said.
“Good,” Pam said. “Let’s go.”
The ground began to shift under them. Rocks and scree cascaded down. Some of it struck the truck. Another quake.
“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 shifted. Hand-sized stones, like quicksand. It felt sickening. Chips of stone chewed at his arm. Mac ducked, pulling Pam with him. They found a better position and waited until the earthquake stopped.
“They know where we are now.” Pam said. She 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!"
He followed Pam's gaze. The woman with the shotgun and another person were standing near the entrance to the diner, ducking low.
Mac mulled it over. It was worth a try.
A few minutes before they'd left the diner, Mac had turned all the gas stoves on high. The place ought to be filling with fumes by now.
Mac aimed at the diner's windows and fired. The result was unexpected. The diner let out a belch of fire followed by an peal of thunder. The shotgun lady and other guy who had been with her, did cartwheels in the air and landed as smoldering piles of rags.
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.
"What was that explosion?" Pam asked.
"I blew-up the diner," Mac said matter-of-factly.
She stared at him, but then cocked her head out of her open window.
“I hear him,” Pam said. “One of them is coming up the road, shooting through the trees!”
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 spider-webbed, but held in place.
The truck’s engine roared to life as Mac floored it, fishtailing along the narrow stony lane below the ridge. Pam clung to the seat, as a bag of cans shifted at her feet.
The 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. The road then changed to its slushy ash texture, making things worse.
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. How had he come so far, Mac couldn't fathom. He had a rifle now and he was taking careful aim.
There was no where to hide. Mac began to swerve the truck back and forth, as much as he dared. But the mucky surface of the road made this maneuver nearly impossible. It was all he could do to keep the truck from going over the railing and down the mountain side. He gave the old truck more gas. Pressing hard on the accelerator.
"Come on baby, come on..." Mac muttered, gripping hard on the steering wheel. The engine roared and seemed to mask the sound of the gunfire. The truck swerved crazily and he let off the gas. Just another second and they be around the curve...
The man fired. A flash of light, then the boom. Mac duck instinctively.
The bullet pierced the cab’s rear window again, but not the windshield. That thought did not register at first. Then he understood.
“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, bleeding.
"Where safe now!" Mac yelled. But Pam seemed groggy, tired. "Stay with me baby! Stay with me!"
They were climbing higher and winding around the back of the mountain where the sleet began to thicken. He heard another shot and after that, then just the hypnotic muffled whine of the truck's tires fighting the ash slicked road.
Pam was leaning against the passenger door panting holding her shoulder where the crimson stain was beginning to spread. He tried to pull he close, but she moaned.
"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. The old truck held, grunted and sputtered, but pressed on.
Mac watched as Pam passed out. He pulled over then. Checked the bleeding and breathed a sigh of relief. He patched her up and realized that the wound was not fatal. That the blood flow was already slowing.
"Good girl," he said.
She mumbled in response, then passed out. Her breathing was steady.
Then Mac turned the truck around. "I need to take care of something, honey."
The next thing Pam remembered was Mac talking.
“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.
It seemed to have taken too long to get here, Pam thought. Where had the time gone?
Mac carried her to the back porch and helped her sit on the wooden chair. He was grunting in pain. She tried to 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 muffled in her mask.
Mac wiped the lenses of her gas mask. "How about now?"
"Wow, they are really smoky now, huh?"
"That's why they call them the Great Smoky Mountains, Pammy."
"Right. And since when did they have volcanic ash skies?"
"Dunno," Mac said.
"How's your leg?"
"I need you to dig out a bullet or two," Mac said.
"Not me," Pam responded.
"No? Why not?" Mac asked.
"Mine went clean through."
"I know, I told you that," Mac replied. "You're in good shape."
"When?" she asked.
"When did you get another bullet?"
"After you passed out. I pulled over the second time. And when I went back." Mac was beginning to slur his words.
She looked confused. "A bullet or two? Went back?"
"I had to make sure they wouldn't follow us, Pammy."
"You've been shot...again?" Pam looked at him. Used her good arm to pull his jacket away.
"Ouch," Mac said.
"Oh no!" Pam hollered. She scrambled from the chair.
"It's just a scratch," he replied. Then it was Mac's turn to lose consciousness. She slowed his fall.
Pam rolled him over, face up on the deck and pulled his shirt up. She removed his pants as well.
Mac had been hit at least three more times. Both arms and the right side, near his stomach. She stopped the bleeding and found that one bullet was just under the skin in the flesh of his belly. She pulled it out easily. He was still out cold and he was too pale. Too quiet.
The arm injuries were more difficult, but she made quick work of it. Patching him with duct tape for now. He wasn't bleeding too badly yet. Nothing major looked hit.
The leg wound was something else. The bullet was too deep in his calf muscle. She opted for alcohol and that woke him.
"Ouch! What it God's name are you doing woman?"
"Killing germs," Pam said.
"And why am I naked...and freezing?"
Pam smiled. "One more to go."
© 2017 Jack Shorebird