“Paulie, try and put these crackers in the box up front.”
“They won’t fit.”
“Just try. They’re open and I don’t want to run the risk of them getting full of nasty fuel flavor.”
I sighed, trying to gather my patience. “Just … try. OK?”
“Not … not … not … crackers fit … there … over …”
“What the heck are you …? Oh.” Switching gears and pulling my hard heart firmly in place I pushed Paulie back towards the rest area building where the rest of the kids were plastered against the big plate glass window watching us. “Go. Grab them and go to the bathroom. Drop the roll down thingie.”
“What about …?”
“Go!” I barked taking out the Glock and making sure it was loaded and the safety was off.
A man came stumbling down the entrance ramp from the interstate. He was really wrecked up. But I could see a badge on his shirt. I’d not personally had any trouble with the cops or military people but I’d heard stories so it made me cautious. I stood there watching him get closer and closer. The closer he got the more wrecked up he looked. About a dozen yards away he finally saw me and it startled him.
He looked around and then put up his hands. “Not looking for trouble Miss. I … I’m just looking for my partner.”
“No other live ‘uns around. There are some DBs but none of them have any kind of uniform on.”
“Can you point that thing a different direction?” he asked referring to the fact that I had him cold if he twitched the wrong way.
“I could. But I won’t. At least not until I know you aren’t a schizo zombie freak out to get whatever you can.”
He just sort of blinked at me and then slowly nodded. “OK. Mind if I go around you to get me water?”
I shrugged and he carefully stumbled around and headed straight for the hand pump which told me he at least was somewhat familiar with this rest stop since the pump itself wasn’t visible from the road. Problem was though he was too weak to manage the short handled pump.
“You better not make me regret this,” I growled at him.
He slid to the ground without a word as I worked the pump handle. As close as I was I could see his lips were all cracked and he’d taken a serious beat down. He saw me looking and said, “You should see the other guys.” Then he laughed but it wasn’t a funny laugh, more like he was barely holding on to the right side of sane.
I stopped pumping so he wouldn’t drown and said, “You’ve been walking a while I guess.”
“You could say that.” He blinked and then something shifted. “Miss, you shouldn’t be out here alone. It isn’t safe.”
It was my turn to give the same half-crazy laugh he had and say, “No kidding Sherlock.”
“I suppose I deserved that,” he muttered trying to stand up.
“A little bit,” I agreed backing away rather than helping him.
Whatever had knocked the cop out of him was fading and he was giving me the once over. “You aren’t from around here.” It was a statement, not a question.
“Whatever gave you that idea?” I asked trying to sound innocent.
He snorted. “The Arizona plates on your car for one thing.”
I sighed. “You aren’t one of those do-gooder, busy-body types are you?”
“Not when I can help it. If people want to be idiots I stay out of their way and let ‘em at it so long as they aren’t breaking the law.”
I’d irritated him but at least he had a sense of humor. I relaxed a little. “So, are the cops still up and running around here?”
“Not here, Cedarville.” At my questioning look he said, “About ten miles north on 59. That’s …”
“Yeah, I saw 59 on the map. So if not around here what are you doing here?”
“We needed medical supplies.”
“The town. Now will you kindly point that thing another direction. You can see I’m not going to pounce on you. Even if I was the kind of ass that would do that to a young woman you can see I’m in no shape for it.”
“I don’t trust my eyes much these days. But so long as you stay back I’ll … I’ll pick another direction.”
“That I can do. Last thing I need is to get shot on top of everything else.” Shifting his whole body so he could look around without moving his obviously sore upper body he asked, “Are you alone?”
He gave me a searching look. “Well, it ain’t a lie but something is sure up with that answer.” I rolled my eyes and that’s when he cursed and said, “My gawd, you’re just a kid.”
Must have been the eye roll that gave me away. I told him, “Knock it off. You aren’t exactly Methuselah. What? You’re twenty-five, something like that?”
He gave me a hard look and then shook his head. “I won’t bother asking where your parents are.”
“Good, ‘cause it isn’t any of your business. You just leave us be.”
I could have kicked myself. So much for Miz Tough Girl. “Just leave us alone. I’ve already had a few problems with guys wanting to bargain for … well for stuff and I’m not into it.”
“I’m married.” Even at sixteen I knew that didn’t play into reality all that much. I could see the man actually blush under the mess his face was which only made me grin more. “Knock it off kid,” he muttered darkly.
That made me chuckle though I didn’t really have any reason to. “Oh fine. But seriously, I didn’t know guys like you still existed. Not even my brothers got that red when they got embarrassed and they were strawberry blondes.”
“You’re brothers are blonde?”
All the humor left me. “Were. But that’s none of your business either. Just go away.”
He just looked at me and then he blinked his eyes a couple of times and then he shook his head and I thought he’d developed some weird facial tick. Then the man fell over in a dead faint, hitting the ground hard enough to send a poof of dust up in all directions. I thought he was playing at first but I poked him with a stick a couple of times and it was pretty obvious he was truly out cold. I sighed and went over to the bathroom door and called, “Paulie … let me in.”
After I explained what had happened Tiff asked, “Are you just going to leave him there?”
I growled, “I ought to … but I suppose I won’t. Tiff, you and Bobby get our things out of the welcome center; you guys are going to have to stay in the bathroom. I’m going to drag him into the welcome center and then Paulie and I will finish loading the car. We need to get gone from here before anyone else comes along.”
“But what about him?” she asked again.
My only answer was a shrug. And we would have gotten gone too if the sky hadn’t decided to open up and try and drown everything for what was left of the day. I put the kids to bed in the bathroom, told them a story to get their mind off of the thunder enough so they could sleep, but didn’t feel comfortable letting the guy have free run of the rest area while I wasn’t looking so I leaned against the wall in the welcome center to guard him.
Against the best of intentions I half dozed and probably would have completely gone to sleep if the guy hadn’t nudged my elbow. I jumped awake and away from him, trying to aim in the dark.
“Easy Kid … if I had wanted to hurt you I would have just taken the gun before I woke you up. Stand down.”
My heart was hammering its way out of my chest. “Stay back!”
“I’m back … I’m back already. Look, nothing in my hands. I know it’s dark but can’t you see them in the moonlight from the window?”
I gulped air but finally got myself under control. “What do you want?” I snapped.
“To make sure you were OK. You were whimpering.”
“I was not!”
“You were too. You’ve still got tears on your face.”
I brushed at my checks and did indeed find tear tracks still damp on my face. “Jerk,” I told him.
“I’ve been called worse. Now if you are done debating whether to shoot me or not will you at least tell me you are ok?”
“I’m fine,” I spit. More calmly I told him, “You shouldn’t wake strangers up like that. You don’t know how they’ll react. I don’t want to shoot you … at least not right now. You shouldn’t give me reason to.”
“I’ll try and remember that,” he told me sarcastically. “How long have I been out?”
“Hours. I haven’t been keeping track.”
“You dragged me in here?”
I shrugged but whether he saw me or not I didn’t know as it was nearly pitch dark in the shadows where I had moved to. “Yeah, I guess. Look, are you going to croak or can I leave you alone now.”
“Let’s just say I finally feel more alive than dead for a change.” He was silent for a moment and I could tell he was thinking. “I need a lift back to Cedarville.”
“Good luck with that,” I responded.
He was silent for another moment before saying, “I need to get back to my wife. She’ll … she’ll be frantic by now that I haven’t come back. We’d only planned to be gone a couple of days at most and it has been a little over a week.”
“And my partner Josh was supposed to rendezvous with me here if we got separated. I don’t see his truck in the lot and you say you haven’t seen a uniform among the dead. I still need to look.”
“Bad idea. I put them all in the men’s bathroom with a bunch of bleach and deodorizers but eight plus DBs can make a lot of stink.”
“Tell me about it. I still have to look, ‘cause I have to know.”
“Well at least wait until light, that way if you have to run out and puke you don’t trip over something and spew it all over the place.”
Quietly he said, “Sounds like experience talking.”
“Too much experience.”
I was exhausted but the guy seemed to be into his second wind after his nap time. “What’s your name?” he asked. “Mine’s Jay.”
“That … that was one of my brother’s names.”
“Does that make it a good or bad thing?”
“Neither, it just is.”
“The way you talk … I get the impression that at least your brothers are no longer in the picture.”
Sighing I said, “You aren’t going to give up on that are you?”
“No. My wife says I can get like a dog with a bone when I want to know something.”
“She ain’t kidding. Why would you want to know anyway? I’m no one to you.”
“Let’s just call it natural curiosity.”
He snorted repeating, “I’ve been called worse.”
“I bet.” Considering it I explained, “My dad and brothers were in the military. They’re dead. My mom got caught by the virus back in Phoenix. She’s dead. My uncle and his family … same thing only up in Idaho. And I’m heading for family in Tennessee and for all I know they’re dead too but it’s a direction and at least I know I belong there. That enough for you?”
“Getting there. Who are you traveling with?”
“Who says I am?”
“You did smart aleck. Earlier. So don’t try and change your story now.”
“I could tell you it is a bunch of zoo monkeys.”
“You could. But you’d be lying.”
“I would be,” I agreed. “But who I’m traveling with is still none of your business.”
“Which tells me you’re protecting them for some reason.”
“Go dig a hole Bow Wow … and fall in after your bone.”
We went back and forth that way for a while, neither one of us giving in, until finally the man named Jay fell asleep again. When I could tell he wasn’t faking it I crawled over to the exit door and quietly escaped the welcome center and his presence.
I wandered over to the hand pump and washed up to wake up. When the sun started to turn the sky pink I quietly knocked on the bathroom and told Paulie to let me in.
“Where were you sleeping? Right on top of the door?” I asked him as he had started rolling the door open before I’d finished asking him to.
“Yeah. Just in case. Is everything OK?”
“He seems legit. He’s nosy but I guess that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. He …”
I jumped when an adult male voice behind me said, “Good Lord God Almighty. Kids. It’s just a bunch of little kids.”
The shock on Jay’s face was real. I rounded on him and said, “So?”
“I’ve asked real nice several times now …”
“Oh,” I said, looking at the Glock and then putting it back in my pocket. “Well, you shouldn’t sneak up on people. I warned you about that last night.”
“You warned me about waking up strangers. We’re all awake … or getting there,” he added as he watched the youngest of our group stretch and then spot him and get wide eyes. “Tell ‘em I’m not going to hurt them.”
“No. ‘Cause I’m not sure yet.”
That irritated him again but then he sighed and nodded. “Ok. I get it. But how in the Sam Hill did a bunch of kids … I mean …”
“Long story and one I’m not in the mood to repeat right now. We all started out together except for the baby.”
That’s when Mimi piped up with, “We found him in a trash can.”
“In a ..?!” Jay asked before losing his voice and just staring first at the rock-a-roo and then at me.
I shrugged. “Mimi found him in a gas station bathroom. She thought he was a doll at first. He couldn’t have been more than a couple of hours old because he still had all the gunk attached to him. He doesn’t … you … he might be …” In frustration I snapped, “I did the best I could. If he has issues it wasn’t me that dumped him like a Kotex in the trash.”
“Easy,” Jay said. “Can I … can I have a look at him?”
He shrugged but I could tell there was something underneath it. He carefully picked Baby up. Tiff must have changed him not too long before hand because he didn’t stink.
I nodded, “But he was smaller.”
“Smaller than this?” Jay asked, barely requiring two hands to hold Baby.
“My son was bigger than this and he was born early.”
I opened my mouth then slowly closed it. Here was the story. “Your son?”
“Stillborn. My wife got the virus. She recovered but the fever … it was so high. They say the virus crosses the placental barrier.”
He looked up at me and finally focused. “It is what protects the baby from the environment the mother is in. Some things can cross it, some things can’t. The T-virus can.”
“So that’s what they finally started calling it in the news?”
“The virus … they call it the T-virus?”
He reluctantly handed Baby back to Tiff who was standing their patiently with a bottle and turned to me. “Where the heck have you kids been? And don’t give me that I’m-not-in-the-mood-to-explain-it crap.”
Paulie bristled but I winked at him. “It’s OK Monkey, I’ve spent half the night giving him a hard time.”
Paulie for his part rolled his eyes and in the same tone our brothers would have used said, “You have my sympathies.”
It completely caught Jay off guard and he coughed a reluctant laugh. He shook his head and said, “Seriously girl, this just ain’t right.”
I sighed and told the kids, “Pack it all up.” I looked at Jay and then motioned him out. “There’s nothing you can do about it you know. What happened happened and that’s all.”
“That may be but I ain’t letting it go.”
“I figured that,” I told him and then launched into a very abbreviated version of how it had all started and how we had eventually ended up in the same place as him.
“So you really are going to Tennessee.”
“Even though there might not be anyone there when you arrive?”
“That’s not a given,” I told him. “They found a vaccine …”
“Not many people have actually gotten it. They are still trying to manufacture enough to go around but … most people that were going to get sick have already gotten sick except in the states or areas that quarantined quickly enough to keep it out. Those that haven’t are getting the vaccine based on what tier they get slotted into … necessary workers, spreaders, that sort of stuff.”
I looked outside and it was raining again. I turned back to Jay and said, “What about other countries?”
“No one trusts anyone else so they aren’t admitting anything officially but there’s been satellite images of death barges being taken out to sea.”
“Death barges?” I asked not liking the picture in my head.
“Not enough fuel or electricity to keep the crematoriums running in some places. Getting rid of the dead is big business these days.” Thinking of my mother’s ashes I shuddered. “Hey, you OK?” he asked.
Straightening quickly I said, “Of course.”
“Of course,” he mocked sarcastically. “Look …”
“No, you look. I should probably be checked into the crazy house but … but you can ride with us to Cedarville but only ‘cause we are going that way anyway. But I swear …”
He held up his hands and said, “No trouble. But no one is going to believe me when I tell them how I got home.”
“You don’t need to tell them anything. I don’t want trouble from people thinking they have the answers for us. I got enough problems without having to deal with well-meaning nice-nice people.”
“Man … that is one heck of a chip on your shoulder Dovie.”
I snorted. “Maybe. But it’s true … I don’t want to hurt anyone. I don’t. Especially not if they are just trying to be nice. But sometimes nice people are the worst because they don’t really listen.”
He gave a serious nod. “That I can agree with. I’ve run into it in my line of work a few times believe it or not. Good Samaritans that don’t know when to stop or where to draw the line.”
“Yeah, I just hope you don’t have any of those where you come from.”