Authors: H.E. Goodhue
The ash fell to the wet ground and turned into a thick paste. The sidewalks looked like tubes of black toothpaste had exploded across them. My boots sucked and pulled with each step. I kept one hand over my face, holding the sweatshirt in place, and the other I used to dust the flakes from my clothes as I ran.
There were no sirens. I expected to hear police cars or ambulances at any moment, but there was only the sound of my boots and breathing. The blood in my head was throbbing in my ears and making my head light. I hoped that it was just the insanity of my day and not some early sign of sickness from whatever this shit was.
The next bus stop stood on the corner at the end of the block. I could see the walls and roof of the small structure tilting to the far left. Jagged shards of broken glass shone on the black sidewalk like scattered diamonds. The bus was there. It was also crashed into the side of the bus stop.
I slowed to a walk and moved around the side of the bus. The twisted remains of the bus stop blocked the front door. Steam from the broken radiator gushed from the front of the bus and obscured the view. It didn’t look like anyone was inside. I didn’t see the driver or any of the passengers, not even the homeless guy. They could have left after the crash. Maybe the ash blocked the driver’s view and caused the accident? For some reason, I felt the urge to look inside.
Bodies lined the floor. I could see the driver and a few of the passengers sprawled out towards the front of the bus. The homeless guy was still missing.
Using my sleeve to wipe away some of the ash on the window, I pressed my face closer. A loud
caused me to jump back and trip over some of the wrecked bus stop.
The homeless guy beat two bloodied fists against the window. His eyes were glassy and red. Strings of chunky vomit clung to his scraggly beard and danced lightly as he screamed at me from inside the bus.
“Go to the back door,” I said through my sweatshirt. I pointed to the rear of the bus. “Go there.”
I watched the homeless man shuffle to the back door. He stumbled and fell a few times and struggled to pull himself up from the floor. His bloody hands slipped on the plastic seats, but he continued forward. The short distance to the rear door seemed like an impossible task. He eventually got to the doors.
Standing at the bottom of the stairs, I waved for the homeless guy to hurry up. I didn’t want to leave him on the bus if he was hurt, but I didn’t want to stand around in the ash and slop either. He teetered at the top of the stairs and then pitched forward, slamming his head against the double doors. A patch of hair caught between the rubber that lined both doors.
“Holy shit,” I said and pushed my fingers between the doors to pry them open. The homeless guy groaned and tried to push himself up from the floor. The tangled knot of hair that was between the doors sloughed off as he stood up, exposing a large section of bloody scalp. He pawed at his head, pulling away more hair and scalp with each pass. I saw his fingers poking through the tips of his gloves and could see the skin looked bubbled and raw.
I yanked the doors open. The smell of vomit, urine and death spilled out of the bus. My eyes watered, even though I still had my sweatshirt tied in place.
“Get out of there,” I said and waved. The homeless guy turned towards me. Blood ran from his eyes like tears. I could see it dripping from his ears and nose. He opened his mouth to mumble something. Maybe to ask for help? But all that came out was a thick stream of vomit. It splashed on the rubber floor of the bus and trickled down the stairs in a revolting waterfall.
The homeless guy collapsed, hitting his face on a nearby seat and then tumbled down the stairs. I moved to catch him, but only managed to slip a few ratty dreadlocks between my fingers. They pulled off and he continued onto the sidewalk. I gagged looking at the knotted lengths of hair in my hand. They ended in frayed bits of red skin and meat. Panic surged in my gut.
I rolled the homeless guy over to check him, but he was gone. Poking my head into the bus it looked like the other people had suffered similar deaths. Wads of hair and skin littered the floor. Greasy smears of blood and skin streaked across the windows. I turned to run, not knowing what was going on, but knowing that I had to get as far from this bus as possible.
I had to leave. I had to get home. I had to see Lisa and Kara.
The ash stopped falling by the time I made it to my old neighborhood. The trees were coated in black and gray. The sun tried in vain to break through the clouds and succeeded in only casting a handful of sickly orange rays. I felt like I had never been set free this morning. I hated how the world looked almost as much as I just wanted to go home.
I don’t know what I was expecting, but I was still surprised to see my house. After three years, it had become little more than a memory and the reality of putting my foot on the first step made me dizzy.
Closing my eyes, I could almost imagine Kara flying down the steps and into my arms. She would greet me every day I came home from work, everyday before I went to jail.
The truth was that I knew Lisa and Kara weren’t going to greet me as I walked through the front door. Lisa and Kara left me before I went to prison, three years wasn’t going to change that. It also didn’t mean I wanted to see them again any less. Working menial jobs had left me with little money in the bank, but I had come into some money before prison and used it to set up a trust that kept my house out of foreclosure. I couldn’t stand the idea of someone else living in my house. It was mine and the memories between those walls were priceless. I would have burned it to the ground before I let some stranger intrude on the place I remembered being the happiest.
A picture of Kara and Lisa hung in the front hallway. I never could bring myself to take it down. They had been so happy that day, we all had. It had been one of those impromptu weekend trips to nowhere and we had spent the day picnicking and hiking in the woods. I loved the way the sun framed the two of them in this picture. It looked like auras or halos. They never should have left. We should have stayed like that forever.
The house smelled stale. Motes of dust drifted in the air as I moved from one room to the next. The furniture was covered in plastic and bed sheets. I had done my best to close up the house before I went away. I wanted everything to be how it had been before everything fell apart. I knew it was stupid, but I guess I hoped that if I kept the house the same that Lisa and Kara would come back.
Knee-high drifts of ash blew along the wooden fence in my backyard. Seeing the black, powdery piles that had fallen from the sky shook me from memories of Lisa and Kara. I couldn’t keep walking around with a sweatshirt wrapped around my face. I don’t know what killed those people on the bus, but it had to have something to do with the ash.
My basement was cold and the air smelled damp. A large metal door was set into the far wall. Three locks were set into the door. I knew the combination to each by heart. The first lock was my birthday, then Lisa’s and finally Kara’s. I could have picked better combinations, ones that were harder to guess, but it felt right to use their birthdays. This bunker was where I kept things that would save our lives. Even though Lisa hated it, this was ours. I made this for my family.
I was alone. The door swung open and I looked at the three bunks set into the wall with a heavy heart. All the supplies had been designed to support three people. Everything I had ever done was for them.
A series of hooks hung from the wall near the door. Three NBC masks hung from the hooks. They looked a little strange, kind of like a fish bowl on my face, but they were designed to keep the wearer safe from nuclear, biological and chemical threats. I figured those three areas had to cover whatever was happening outside. I pulled my mask over my face and took a few deep breaths. It pressed on my face and the lens fogged a little. It was still better than the sweatshirt.
The two remaining masks hung on the wall. They were reminders of people who should be with me, people I was missing.
That shit that had fallen from the sky was still on my clothes. I stepped out of the bunker, undressed and put my clothes in a black trash bag. When I dropped my jeans to the floor, I heard the hollow
of my cell phone hitting the concrete floor. I dug it out of my pockets. I tied off the bag and then sealed it with duct tape. I cleaned up as best as I could and changed into a clean set of clothes from the supplies in the bunker. I would need to set up the decontamination shower later, but right now I was just too tired. After that, I grabbed a small, hard package that sat on the shelf. It was drab green and wrapped in plastic. I never could believe they fit these things in such a small bag.
I cut the plastic and removed the S-3 NBC suit from the plastic. It was a protective suit. The layers were lined with charcoal and should keep me safe. I pulled the drawstrings and sealed the cuffs. I didn’t know what was outside, but this was my best bet at surviving it.
There was food on the shelves and bottled water, but I realized that my appetite had vanished. I would have to make sure to eat and drink something later. I walked past the shelves and further into the bunker, trying not to notice that everything was sectioned off in threes.
In the rear of the bunker, my guns hung on some pegs I had set into the wall. A thin coating of dust covered the weapons, but I had wrapped them in plastic after cleaning and oiling them. Knowing that I was going to get locked up allowed me enough time to make sure everything was squared away. A few minutes of cleaning and a little bit of new oil and the guns were good as new.
Near my gun rack was a HAM radio and a series of battery-powered chargers for cell phones and other electronic devices. I plugged my phone in and watched the screen blink to life.
I loaded my Mossberg 930 Special Purpose. As far as shotguns went, this was one of my favorites. A few extra shells were stuffed into my pockets. I don’t know what I was getting ready for, but things were fucked up and I felt better holding a shotgun.
Someone screamed outside. It was angry. A second scream followed. It was a cry for help. I was halfway up the stairs before I realized I was moving.
Back in the bunker, a text message appeared on the small screen of my phone. I wouldn’t see it until later, but its words would remain carved into my heart.
Kara: I miss you, Daddy. I love you.
A black dust devil raced across my front lawn. My eyes followed it. I couldn’t see where the screams had come from. The streets were empty. At the end of my block, I could see a minivan crashed into the side of someone’s house. A section of the roof had broken free and crushed the front half of the minivan. Was that where the yelling had been?
The woman screamed again. I could hear a man barking orders. It sounded like the noise was coming from my neighbor’s house. I thought her name was Jane or something like that. She had a dog named Rusty or Fluffy or whatever. I think he was one of those pocketbook dogs. Of course, all that information meant nothing because in three years Jane could have moved and some new white trash couple could have moved in. Hell, maybe yelling at each other was their Friday night fun? Then I heard a child scream and start crying.
I racked a shell in my shotgun and cleared the steps of my neighbor’s porch in one leap. Jane or not, I didn’t care who was living next door to my house. There was a child in there.
The door was locked. It took three or four kicks to rip the bolt from the doorframe. Every Hollywood movie showed the police breaking doors down with one kick. I don’t know if there was some special technique you learned at the academy, but I sure as hell didn’t know it.
A woman was curled in a corner. It looked like she was trying to protect her son from the man that stood in the middle of living room. The boy was thrashing, trying to get out from behind his mother. He was foaming at the mouth. His eyes were wide with anger and his mouth was curled into a feral snarl. I didn’t know who this man was or what he wanted, but the look on the boy’s face told me more than I needed to know.
The man spun to face me, or more specifically, to face the business end of my Mossberg shotgun. His face was covered in boils. Some had burst, leaving raw sores wreathed with jagged, leathery skin. Clumps of hair had slipped from his scalp and were strewn about the carpet.
“Get. Out. Now.” I motioned towards the door with my shotgun.
Blood zigzagged from the man’s eyes. He squinted at me, as if trying to figure out what his next move was. I wasn’t in the mood to wait and find out. The guy took a step towards me.
“Leave,” I said and pulled the stock tighter against my shoulder. I was ready to kill this asshole if he left me no other choice.
“Get out, Ian,” the woman shouted. She pointed towards the door with a trembling finger. I noticed that her skin looked normal, so did the boy’s. Her words did nothing to calm the situation. Ian, whoever he was, turned and rushed the two people huddled in the corner.
The butt of my shotgun crashed into the back of Ian’s neck. He let out a surprised yelp and fell to the floor. He lay there facedown, gurgling and pawing at the carpet. I pressed the barrel of my shotgun against his head.
“Run over to my house,” I said. “It’s the white one next door. Go down to the basement. I’ll be right behind you.”
“Next door?” the woman asked. “No one lives next door.”
“I do,” I answered. “Now go on over to my house.”
The woman nodded and stood up from the floor. She used the wall to brace herself and I could see bruises on her arms. The boy had similar marks. My finger tightened around the trigger.
Once I heard the lady and boy run down the porch steps, I kicked Ian in the ribs as hard as I could. It was like driving my boots into a sack of laundry. His midsection lifted off the floor and thumped back down without so much as a grunt. I nudged him with the toe of my boot. He didn’t move.
“Get up,” I said. “Ian, get the fuck up.” The NBC mask muffled my words, but he should have been able to hear my command. Ian remained still.
I placed my foot under his shoulder and pushed him over onto his back. The boils on Ian’s face had burst and spilled yellowish-red pus across his face. His eyes were ringed in clotted lines of blood, but had clouded over and become dull and lifeless. Ian’s chest and stomach were motionless. He was dead.
I left Ian on the living room floor.