Author notes: Many, many, thanks to Tanaqui for relentless cheerleading and handholding, when I thought the story sucked and should be scrapped entirely. And of course for stellar beta and editing work. Without her, this story would've been so much worse....
Though some of the places mentioned in this story really exist, I've taken geographical liberties with the layout and appearance of those places, and the states they exist in. And while I don't think it's strictly necessary, it may help to read my story Triage first.


Second part | Third part

Through The Ashes

Chapter 1

“Come with me.” Anna clutched her purse more tightly under her arm, the envelope of cash Jake had pressed on her already hidden deep at the bottom. “You can start over, too.” She peered up at him, a mixture of misery and hope on her face.

A mechanical voice over the Albuquerque bus station’s PA system gave the call for her bus: “Platform six for Houston.” Despite the early hour, the morning sun was already warm, and its glare reflected off of the white buses around them. Jake had to squint to meet Anna’s gaze.

He shook his head. “No, I can’t.” Much as he wanted to simply get on another bus with her and disappear, it wasn’t possible. He had something else to take care of first. “Not yet.”

He’d spent the bus ride here, from San Diego to Albuquerque, going over his options, trying to figure out what to do. He had no real choice: he was flat out of money and, in their haste to get away, had brought nothing with him except the clothes on his back and the spare jeans and shirt in his duffel. Although it was the last thing he wanted, he had to return to Jericho. If he could get Dad to release the money Grandpa had left him, he could―he suppressed a wry huff: if he could get Dad to release the money. He wasn’t holding out much hope he’d convince his father he’d changed―not with Freddy’s blood still staining the creases of his palms―but five years was a long time, and perhaps his father’s outlook would be different.

In any case, it was past time he said his farewells to his grandfather. If nothing else came of it, he’d have peace of mind, at least.

He was about to give Anna a light nudge in the direction of her platform, confirming she should go alone, when he caught sight of a black SUV rolling slowly by the bus station from the corner of his eye. He froze with his hand half-raised, not hearing Anna’s answer as he tracked the car. It probably meant nothing: black SUVs were a dime a dozen, and sometimes a car was just a car. But―.

Freddy’s warning echoed in his mind: They’re gonna come after you.

“All passengers for Houston. Platform six.” For a second time, the warning rang out, in the dull, toneless voice of an announcer who’d uttered the same words countless times.

The SUV turned the corner and disappeared from view without slowing. Jake hesitated, doubting his choice again. Maybe he should see Anna safe all the way to her parents’ house. Jericho would wait; it had been five years and if it took him a few extra days to get there, it’d make no difference. But was that the right decision? As he’d assured Anna, Ravenwood likely wouldn’t be interested in her any longer once she’d parted ways with Jake; they were far likelier to chase him than her, and if he went in another direction, he’d lure them away from her. On the other hand, she wasn’t home yet, and if he let her go on alone and something happened to her or the baby…

All I care about is Anna and my kid. The words Freddy had gasped with his dying breath echoed in Jake’s brain. He took Anna’s elbow.

“Let’s go.”

“Jake? What―?” His sudden urgency startled her, and she shook him off.

He didn’t want to explain, didn’t want to distress her without a reason. After all, his fear that the SUV was government issue―or Ravenwood issue―didn’t necessarily make it true. “I’ve changed my mind, I’m coming with you.”

Her face lit up with relief. “Then hurry!”

She followed on Jake’s heels as they wound around empty buses and a few cars dropping people off, until they located platform six. Passengers were already boarding the coach, its engine running and rumbling deeply so the entire bus vibrated visibly.

“Go ahead. I’ll be right there.” Giving Anna a last, gentle push toward the bus, Jake jogged over to the ticket office and joined the short line of people wanting to buy tickets. As he reached the front of the line and gave his destination to the tired-looking woman behind the counter, the disembodied voice announced overhead, “Last call for Houston. Platform six.”

Jake hopped impatiently on the balls of his feet, glaring at the ticket-seller to hurry up. It’d just be his luck if he missed the bus at the last second. It seemed to take forever, but she finally slid his ticket across. She never even looked at him.

Snatching up the ticket, Jake sprinted to the platform, his duffel bouncing against his back. The bus driver blinked ruefully at him as he squeezed through doors that were already hissing shut, but he didn’t say a word.

Anna was sitting in the same place as they had on the bus out of San Diego: partway along the aisle, occupying a window seat. She’d put her purse on the seat beside her.

“That was close.” She gave him a tired smile and moved her purse so he could sit down.

Shoving their bags into the overhead bin, he slipped in beside her. He nodded absently, peering out of the window in search of the SUV while trying not to be obvious about it.

He didn’t see the SUV, not then or at any point along the route to I-40. As the bus gathered speed, settling in for the long haul, he blew out a relieved breath. Perhaps it had been a false alarm after all. Resting his head against the seat, he allowed himself to relax.

o0o

Dusk saw Jake and Anna a dozen miles south of Vernon, Texas. The hills of New Mexico had given way to the farm fields of the Texas panhandle hours ago. As the bus went on rambling through the landscape, Jake wriggled in his seat, trying to make himself more comfortable. “Sorry,” he muttered when he stabbed Anna with an elbow.

“‘s Okay.” She offered him a wan smile in return.

She looks tired. Her eyes were dull with fatigue and grief. Jake was very aware in that moment that he wasn’t supposed to be the one sitting next to her, and he suspected Anna was as well.

At least they’d apparently shaken off their tail―if there ever had been one. They’d eaten an early lunch at a roadside restaurant in Amarillo, during a layover waiting for their connecting bus that lasted several hours. While Anna picked at a burger and fries, Jake had scanned every passing car, paying extra attention to any vehicle turning into the parking lot. Nobody had seemed unduly interested in either Anna or himself, and he’d seen nothing to further raise his suspicions they were being followed.

He shifted again, still trying to alleviate the numbness in his butt, and wistfully pictured his old, speedy Roadrunner, gathering dust under a tarp in a Denver garage. It had been a long night, and an even longer day, and they weren’t halfway to Houston yet.

“Why don’t you take a seat opposite?” Anna suggested when Jake repositioned himself a third time. He blinked at her, puzzled. “It’s not like there’s no room.”

She had a point there: the bus was less than half full and there were plenty of empty seats. He regarded her more carefully, searching for a hidden meaning behind her suggestion. Was she regretting she’d asked him to come with her?

“I didn’t―.” Faint color rose in her cheeks, as if she knew what he was thinking. “I mean, you’d have more space there.” She grinned shyly. “And what could possibly happen to me?”

“You’re right. Sorry.” The seats were narrow. He offered her a lopsided grin to concede the point. “I’ll be―.” He waved vaguely and got to his feet. Anna immediately took advantage of the space he’d created, drawing up one leg and curling her foot under her as Jake plopped down on the other side of the aisle. With two seats to himself, he no longer needed to be mindful about accidentally bumping into her every time he moved and, as he quickly discovered, he could relax more easily. He shot her another grin, a grateful one this time, and she smiled back as he made himself comfortable.

Outside, endless wheat and corn fields were gliding by, their crops tainted red with the light of the sun sinking toward the western horizon. Jake squinted into its hot glow for a while, before letting his eyes drift shut. Sprawled over the two seats, he settled in for a cat nap. What else was there to do while the bus chugged along?

Without warning, the driver slammed the brakes, hard. People shouted in surprise and the sudden jolt propelled Jake off his seat as the bus screeched to a halt. He barely had time to brace himself against the back of the seat in front of him to avoid slamming into it face first. His eyes flew open. What the…?

“Oh my God…” Anna’s breath hitched as she whispered the words.

Jake swung toward her, concerned. “Are you hurt?”

She wasn’t looking at him. “Jake, look…”

He didn’t need to ask what she was talking about. The bus was angled on the road, having skidded sideways during its emergency stop. The window on Anna’s side was facing directly southeast, giving him an unhindered view of the strip of asphalt running off toward the horizon. And on the horizon—.

Jake’s jaw dropped and he had a strong urge to scrub at his eyes, thinking what he was seeing wasn’t real. He recognized the imagery, of course; had seen it in history books and old photographs, and CGI’ed into a dozen apocalyptic science fiction movies. Never in his worst nightmares, not even during those deadly days in Iraq, where every trip down Route Irish meant running a gauntlet of snipers and IEDs, had he ever dreamed he’d see it for real: the mushroom cloud of what could only be a nuclear explosion.

In a way, it was beautiful. The mushroom rose hundreds, no, thousands of feet into the air, slowly billowing higher and higher, the setting sun painting the cloud in bright pink and deep purple and warm orange, the colors starkly offset against the darkening sky to the east.

After a few moments—or maybe it was minutes, Jake wasn’t sure—he became aware of the heavy, dazed silence around him. He must’ve moved across the aisle, finding himself half-standing behind Anna, leaning forward over her, his hands curled around the tops of the seats in front and behind her.

A girl several rows to the front whimpered, the sound loud in the stunned quiet of the bus. Tearing his eyes away from the horrific column of smoke, Jake glanced in her direction. He’d seen her board in Abilene, surprised she was traveling on her own when she looked only twelve or thirteen. He hadn’t known the bus company allowed unaccompanied young teens.

“Is… Is that… Dallas?” If not for the silence that reigned in the bus, the softly stammered question would never have reached Jake’s ears. Swiveling his head toward the speaker, Jake saw an elderly woman sitting a few rows further back beside an equally elderly man―her husband, he guessed. Her lined face was pale beneath a cap of gray curls, and the blusher she’d painted on her cheeks stood out sharply. Her eyes were round, glued to the scene in the distance.

“I don’t know,” her husband whispered back, his voice low and as heavy with shock as hers.

“Jake?” Anna gripped Jake’s arm, her fingers digging into his flesh, asking him the same question. He shook his head: he had as little idea as the old man what was happening. The angle of view, the direction, both were exactly right for Dallas, and it was certainly far enough away, even though they could see the cloud clearly. Jake simply couldn’t picture any other objective that would’ve been targeted for such an explosion.

Maybe it was an accident, he cautioned mentally, stopping his imagination from running wild. Even in Iraq, dumb luck and accidents had happened. And an accident would be preferable over the alternative…

“What do we do now?” The questioner was a blonde woman in her forties, who’d sequestered herself with a paperback book in the back of the bus. She was still holding the book, her finger curled to mark the page she’d stopped reading at. Jake didn’t think she was aware of it.

Nobody answered. Far to the southeast, the smoke was slowly dissipating, the colors dulling as the sun sank beneath the horizon in the west.

“We’re going back.” The driver’s voice rang loud in the silence. He restarted the engine and shifted the bus into gear. “Back to Vernon, to the depot. Sorry, folks.”

Slowly, the bus inched backwards as the driver tried to regain his grip on the asphalt.

“What? No… no, you can’t!” Two rows ahead of Jake and Anna, a man in a crumpled suit jumped from his seat. He stumbled to the front of the bus, awkwardly holding onto the seat backs as he navigated along the aisle and past the teenaged girl. “I have to get to Dallas tonight!”

The driver paused in his attempts to get the bus moving. He shot the passenger an irritated glare, before concentrating on his steering wheel again. “Did you see that cloud?” He was carefully maneuvering the bus backward and forward, trying to turn it on the narrow road without putting a wheel in a ditch. “No way in hell I’m drivin’ toward that.”

“No, no, no,” the passenger muttered. He shoved his glasses up his nose with the back of his hand, breathing hard, on the brink of hyperventilating.

The driver put on the brake and swiveled around fully in his seat, addressing the upset passenger. “Sir, to be honest, I don’t think there’s a Dallas left to go to. If we return to Vernon, we can―.”

He broke off abruptly. The passenger was leaning forward, gesturing at the driver with something in his hand. Jake saw the driver’s eyes widen and his own stomach lurched as he got a good look. The driver had switched on the interior lights against the growing darkness outside a few minutes earlier, and the yellow glow glinted off of the black metallic object the passenger held.

A gun! Jake clenched his jaw in irritation; dammit, as if the situation wasn’t already bad enough, this guy had to make it worse.

Not everyone had the same angle of view of the driver as Jake did, and he reckoned none of the other passengers could see the weapon. Just as well. Coming on the heels of the mushroom cloud, the sight of a gun certainly would’ve set off a panic. Jake tried to decide whether and how to intervene before the situation got out of hand completely.

“Hang on, dude, let’s—.” A jeans-clad guy with long, graying hair laboriously dragged himself to his feet from three rows behind the driver and across the aisle.

The gunman whipped around at the sound of his voice, and the rest of what the man in jeans had been planning to say died on his lips. “Whoa…!” He spread his hands and sat back down slowly. Twin sharp intakes of breath told Jake the older couple behind them had also spotted the weapon now. The girl, fortunately, wasn’t aware of what was going on. Jake suspected she was crying, from the faint sniffling noises she was making. He briefly wondered if she was in shock or in pain, before the man with the gun spoke again.

“We. Are. Going. To. Dallas!” Turning back to the driver, the passenger jabbed him with the weapon with every word. The gun shook in his grip and he looked at least as frightened as his victim.

Someone needed to take action, and do it fast. Though the bus was largely empty, if this idiot lost control and started shooting in the narrow space, someone was bound to get hit.

Jake dipped his head toward Anna, pitching his voice low. “Stay down.” The whites of her eyes showing, she slid down as far as she could, leaving only the top of her head visible over the seats. Jake didn’t know what kind of protection a bus seat would provide against bullets; it’d certainly be better than none.

Jake risked a glance behind. Everyone else sat frozen in their seats, but he met the elderly gentleman’s gaze. Understanding bloomed between them. The man leaned over to whisper to his wife. Thinking he’d done all he could to make certain the other passengers were as safe as could be, Jake mentally braced himself and slowly straightened.

“Sir?”

As soon as Jake spoke, the armed man spun in his direction, training the gun on him. The trembling had gotten worse and the muzzle wavered uncertainly. Jake forced himself to keep moving forward slowly, trying to remain outwardly calm, while his insides twisted with fear. The guy’s hand was shaking so badly that he risked the weapon going off by accident. And Jake would be right in the line of fire…

Dragging his eyes from the gun, he lifted his head to meet the passenger’s gaze. Two or three paces away, he stopped moving. The gunman was in his forties, his suit was creased, and strands of thin hair had been combed across to try, unsuccessfully, to hide a balding pate. He far more resembled a door-to-door salesman than the type of person who’d hold a bus driver at gun point.

“Please, sir, put the gun down.” Jake kept his voice deliberately low, as if speaking to a skittish horse. “We can figure this out if you put the gun down.” He held the man’s gaze, seeing the fear and panic in his eyes. “Please.”

The man’s breathing eased a little and the muzzle of the gun started dipping. Jake reached out with one hand, careful to make no sudden moves, intent on taking the gun from him.

The bus driver lacked Jake’s patience: Jake was aware of him inching up behind the gunman. He tried to warn the driver off without alerting the passenger, but the driver was too focused on the gun.

“Don’t…!” Jake cried out the warning, but too late. The driver jumped forward, making a grab for the gunman. The two of them wrestled together, fighting for possession of the gun, their struggle clumsy in the narrow space between the rows of seats.

With a loud bang, the gun went off. The noise shook the bus and left Jake’s ears ringing. Somewhere behind Jake, a woman screamed, but he paid her no mind, his attention fixed on the two men in front of him.

For a heartbeat or two, everything congealed in time. Then, as the noise of the shot faded, the bus driver slowly slid from the gunman’s embrace, landing gracelessly onto his back on the floor. Red bloomed on his chest, staining his blue uniform shirt an inch underneath his name tag..

“Oh…! No, nooo…!” the gunman moaned, goggling in horror at the man lying at his feet. No longer trying to be careful, Jake dashed forward and wrested the gun from the gunman’s limp hands before he could recollect his wits and threaten anyone else. Quickly unloading it, Jake stuffed the weapon in his belt at his back and the clip in his pocket.

The passenger turned tear-filled eyes on him. “I… I d―didn’t mean…,” he stammered, pleading for Jake to understand.

Jake waved him aside impatiently, blindly shoving him between a pair of seats to give him room to kneel and check on the driver. Placing his fingertips against the man’s throat, Jake closed his eyes, praying he’d feel a pulse.

He found none.

“He’s dead.” Jake opened his eyes and hauled himself to his feet.

“Dammit.” The man in the denim jacket stood up again, peering down curiously at the driver’s body. An inch-wide button on his denim lapel proclaimed him a Beatles fan. Below the button was a peace sign. “So, what next?” He gestured in the direction of the disarmed passenger, who was still slumped on the seat Jake had pushed him on to. “And what do we do with him?”

Jake shrugged. How the hell was he supposed to know? All the fight had gone out of the man: his eyes stared unseeingly into the distance and his lips moving silently. Still, best not take any chances. “Tie him up, I guess,” he suggested. “Take him to Vernon and get the sheriff.” What else could they do?

“But… but what about Dallas?” the old lady asked. “Maybe he was right, maybe we should go on?”

“Did you see that damned cloud?” Beatles Fan demanded. He’d taken off his belt and was wrapping it around the gunman’s unresisting wrists. “No damned way am I gonna stay on this bus if it goes to Dallas.”

“Doesn’t matter where we want to go.” It was the booklady, though she’d put her book away. “We no longer have a driver.” She deliberately avoided looking at the driver’s crumpled body.

The double shock of seeing the mushroom cloud and a man getting killed in front of them was starting to wear off. Someone else protested he hadn’t paid for a bus ticket so that he had to walk. Another reported to nobody in particular that her cell phone wasn’t working and that she couldn’t get through to the emergency services. Jake tuned out their clamor. He’d turned to check Anna was okay—she gave him a reassuring nod as she peered cautiously over the edge of the seat in front of her—but his attention had been caught by the teenage girl sitting several rows in front.

The girl was holding a palm to her forehead, and there were streaks of blood on her face, while her skin was almost white beneath the red. She must’ve slammed into the seat before her when the bus screeched to a halt and it had been pain and not fear that had her whimpering.

“Hey. You okay?” He knelt in the aisle beside her seat.

Shifting eyes that were too large for her face to look at him, her focus fuzzy with shock, she pulled free the earphones she was still wearing. His original estimate of her age had been a little off: up close, she looked more like fourteen or fifteen. She gave him a tremulous nod. “I hit my head.”

“Can I see?”

A second hesitant nod. When she took her hand away, Jake gently brushed free the strands of hair that were stuck in the drying blood. The cut wasn’t deep, but it was still oozing. Head wounds could be nasty like that.

He turned, searching for Anna. “Can you see if you can clean her up?”

“Sure.” Anna got up, coming forward to join the girl.

Pushing to his feet and jerking his head toward the front of the bus, Jake added, “There should be a first aid kit, I’ll get it for you.”

He found the kit under the driver’s seat and passed it to Anna. Further down the aisle, the rest of the bus passengers were persisting in a heated debate about what they should do. Thankfully, someone–Jake assumed the guy with the Beatles button–had moved the driver’s body, drawing it into the gap between two rows of unoccupied seats. The puddle of blood remained in the middle of the aisle, already clotting dark and thick.

He surveyed the gaggle crowding near the back. “Folks, listen up.” Nobody paid him the slightest attention. Jake frowned. Dad always made it seem so simple. He cleared his throat, and called out a second time, repeating himself until everyone was listening. “Okay. First, we need to figure out what to do. It’s obvious a terrible thing has happened in Dallas or Fort Worth.” Several people darted glances toward the horizon, now hidden by full darkness. With the light on inside, all that was visible was the reflection of their own frightened faces. Jake continued, “We have a dead bus driver, and people injured. I think we’ve gone ten or fifteen miles since Vernon.” He paused. “I say we go back there. Find out what’s happened, and get help.”

Silence hung heavily in the bus. Several passengers exchanged looks with each other, as if waiting to see who’d be their spokesperson. The elderly gentleman took on the responsibility. “I agree, it’s the best option.” His wife knitted her brows sadly and he shrugged apologetically at her. “But who can drive the bus?”

“I can,” Jake assured him. “I used to drive a truck.”

Not wanting to give any of the passengers the chance to come up with further objections, he headed back to the front of the bus, casting a glance at Anna as he passed her by. She was gently cleaning the blood off the girl’s face with a bottle of water and a tissue.

Jake hoisted himself into the driver’s seat, forcing himself not to think of the man it had belonged to. The engine was still running, rumbling softly, and he put the bus into gear. Maneuvering carefully, he finished turning the bus on the highway and started back in the direction of Vernon. The touch of the big wheel underneath his hands was strangely familiar, although the bus handled more delicately than the heavy trucks he’d been running for Jennings & Rall.

Two or three miles later, someone slipped into the seat behind him. Not wanting to look away from the road for too long, he risked a quick peek across his shoulder. Anna was leaning forward, resting her elbows on her knees, as she kept her voice low. “The cut isn’t too bad, but she’s gonna need stitches, I think.”

Her words had Jake confused, until he remembered she’d been taking care of the injured girl. “Okay, thanks.”

Anna was quiet for half a mile. “Jake…?” She drew in a shuddering breath. “What’re we gonna do?”

He gave her another brief glance, catching the uncertainty in her expression. “I don’t know yet. We’ll figure it out, okay?”

She bit her lip, but nodded, and Jake switched his attention back to driving.

He honestly had no idea what they should do. Despite Freddy’s murder in San Diego, or the risk he and Anna would be running by talking to the authorities so soon after, his best bet was to make straight for the sheriff’s office: let local law enforcement deal with the dead driver and the gunman and the busload of frightened passengers. Truth be told, he hadn’t given much thought to anything beyond getting to Vernon. It all depended on what had caused that plume of smoke they’d seen: was it an accident? Or something else? And if it wasn’t an accident, what did it mean? He hoped they’d find answers in town. Then they could decide what to do next.

To Jake’s relief, the welcoming lights of the small town soon beckoned in the distance. Directing his focus to Anna sitting behind him, he asked, “Can you see if anyone can tell me where the sheriff’s station is?”

She gave his shoulder a light squeeze and got up to move down the aisle. She came back as they were passing the Welcome to Vernon sign. “Sorry, no. Nobody’s from here.”

Jake grimaced wryly. Figured. The Main Street exit came up and he hit the blinker; the sheriff’s office was bound to be in the middle of town. Sure enough, there was a sign at the bottom of the ramp pointing him to various public buildings. The sheriff’s office was half a mile away.

It took nearly as long to travel those last seven blocks of Main Street as the dozen or so miles to reach the town limit. On the highway, traffic had been light, allowing Jake to maneuver the bus without hindering anyone. Main Street was crammed with cars―rusted farm pickups and mud-splattered SUVs―inching forward, bumper to bumper.

Jake pulled up along the sidewalk in front of the brick building that housed the sheriff’s office. Cars honked at him angrily but he ignored them. Putting the bus in neutral and cutting off the engine, he let out a sigh of relief.

Before he could get up from his seat, a deputy jogged over from the building. He pounded on the door and hollered, “Hey! You can’t park―.”

Studying the console, Jake located the button that opened the doors. Squeezing through the gap as soon as he could, the deputy finished in a lower volume, “―here. You―.” He broke off as he caught sight of the dark stain on the floor where the driver had died. He inhaled sharply, taking in a whiff of air that, Jake knew, would be thick with the cloying scent of blood, even if he couldn’t smell it himself any longer. The deputy clearly had the experience to recognize the smell at once, and he visibly tensed up. “What the…?”

His hand went to his gun on instinct, his focus switching from the drying puddle of blood to Jake, eyes narrowed. Jake sighed inwardly. Sure, blame him. Then again, he admitted silently, he was in the driver’s seat… He slowly raised his hands, palms out, to show the deputy he wasn’t armed―the confiscated gun pressing uneasily against his back―and that he meant no harm.

“Better get the sheriff,” he told the deputy. “He―,” Jake jerked with his head in the direction of the former gunman, still stashed in a seat with his wrists bound together, “―shot the driver.” On reflection, Jake didn’t think the man would’ve caused them any further trouble; all the fight had gone out of him with the bus driver’s death.

The deputy swiveled his head and regarded the bound passenger doubtfully. He kept fingering the butt of his gun, his suspicion not lessening any.

“It’s true,” Anna said from the seat behind Jake.

“We all saw it,” the old man near the back added.

The next instant, pandemonium broke out, as if the old man’s words had been a signal. Everyone was talking at once, each trying to convince the deputy that Jake was speaking the truth, offering to tell him what they’d seen and asking if he knew what had happened in Dallas.

The deputy blinked at them, but his shoulders relaxed and he eased his hand off the butt of his gun. Jake released the breath he hadn’t been aware he’d been holding. The deputy grabbed his radio and toggled it. “Sheriff, you best get down here. Greyhound bus, outside the station.”

Before the sheriff had a chance to respond, the street lights illuminating Main Street flickered—and then went out entirely. The lamp light spilling out from nearby shop windows and from neon signs on store fronts winked out too, as did the glow in the windows of City Hall, across from the bus and the sheriff’s office. All that was left as the streets were plunged in sudden darkness were the headlamps of the cars outside and the low reading lights inside the bus.

A collective gasp went through the cabin, the cackle of voices abruptly falling silent. Jake risked a peek at Anna, praying the blackout wouldn’t cause anyone else to freak out.

The deputy must’ve thought the same thing. He held up a hand. “Everybody, please, stay calm,” he urged. “Just the power going out. We’ll have you sorted in a bit.”

Jake couldn’t tell if the passengers were simply too numbed from all they’d seen already, or if the deputy’s calming words had made a difference. Either way, to his relief, everyone stayed in their seats. Ten seconds later, the lights came back on in the sheriff’s station and in City Hall. The street lamps and store lights remained dark.

“Emergency generators,” the deputy explained, without being asked. A half minute went by while they waited in silence until a portly man wearing a sheriff’s uniform, his star of office pinned to his chest, came hurrying down the steps from City Hall, and crossed the street, winding a path through traffic until he reached the bus. A couple of deputies followed in his wake.

“Porter?” The sheriff climbed the steps into the bus. His name tag pronounced him to be Sheriff Kobler, and he looked harried and stressed. “What the heck’s so urgent? Don’t you understand I’ve got other—.” The complaint died on the sheriff’s lips as he, too, saw the blood. Glancing around, his jaw set into a hard line as he spotted the bound passenger and the slumped body of the driver. “What happened?”

For the second time, Jake explained the sequence of events, everyone else in the bus once more backing up his story. As he talked, cars kept rumbling by outside, headlights sweeping over the bus constantly, making shadows dance. “Also, there’s a girl who needs medical attention.” He pointed her out to Kobler. Anna had done a good job cleaning the worst of the blood off her face and covering the cut with a band-aid, but even in the gloom of the overhead lights, Jake could see the dressing was stained with freshly seeping blood.

In the street, shrill voices started yelling. Jake ducked his head so he could see out of the front window. A crowd had formed in front of a nearby store, a cluster of bodies swaying back and forth.

“We’ll have someone look at the girl.” Kobler heaved a sigh. He came across as both annoyed and weary as he also regarded the small crowd. “We’ll also be wanting everyone’s―.”

His radio crackled to life, interrupting what he’d been about going to say. A voice sharp with suppressed panic rang over the airwaves. “Sheriff? Sheriff, are you there?”

Kobler closed his eyes briefly, a man barely holding on to his temper, and keyed his radio. “Yes, Dinovo, I’m here. Calm down, son.”

Glass jingled as it broke, and several dark shapes darted out from inside the store carrying boxes. Jake only caught a glimpse before whoever they were disappeared into the dark night. Kobler cursed under his breath and addressed one of his deputies who’d boarded the bus behind him. “See to that, please.” The deputy fired off a half-salute and left, while Kobler talked into his radio. “Dinovo, what is it?”

“Sheriff, you best come over to Mitchell’s gas station. We got big trouble.” Screaming and the sound of more glass breaking came over the radio, until the call abruptly cut off. The sudden silence was chilling. Kobler muttered a fresh expletive as he frowned at his radio. He raised his head and addressed the bus: “Folks, listen up. As you can tell, it’s pretty hectic right now. But there’s no reason to panic; I’m sure it’ll all be cleared up soon. So, this is what we’re gonna do: I’ll have one of my deputies take down your names and home addresses. And in the morning―.”

“Where are we gonna stay?” someone asked.

“And what about Dallas?” someone else’s voice piped up.

Kobler shot Jake a despairing look. Jake rolled his shoulders in sympathy. Kobler’s brows drew together in a new frown, before he raised both hands, palms out, the gesture designed to beg for silence. “Once we’ve gotten your information, we’ll have you taken over to the Holiday Inn on Hillcrest. You can spend the night there.” The guy dressed in denim opened his mouth but one look from Kobler and he snapped it shut without speaking. Kobler gave a curt nod, almost to himself. “In the morning, I’d like to take your statements about what happened on this bus. Hopefully, we’ll also have a clearer picture of–.” He hesitated briefly before he went on, “of the other events that happened tonight. And then we’ll see what we can do about gettin’ y’all home. Alright?” He let his gaze wander over the passengers, until one by one they acquiesced.

“Very well.” Kobler waved at Porter, the deputy who had first stepped on to the bus. “Get Jim Davids. Have him take these folks to the hotel. And I want this bus impounded for evidence.” He sucked in his cheeks. “And someone take this fool,” Kobler pointed to the gunman with a jerk of his head, “to the county jail.”

“Sure thing, Sheriff.” Porter yanked the gunman to his feet, and half dragged, half carried him from the bus. Kobler followed.

“Um, Sheriff…?”

Kobler twisted around on the top step and peered up at Jake. “Ah yes, the girl. The hospital’s on the way to the Holiday Inn. Jim’ll have to stop there anyway to have the body removed to the morgue. Ask him to drop you off, too, get her seen by a doctor.” He gave an apologetic shrug and a vague wave to the chaos outside. The deputy’s presence had dispersed the looters but the street remained crowded. “Normally, I’d call for an ambulance, but…”

“I understand.” Jake did understand, but he had a nasty suspicion the sheriff had just pawned off responsibility for a girl whose name he didn’t even know onto Jake. “You’ll also be wanting this.” Jake pulled the gun out from the back of his jeans, holding the weapon gingerly between thumb and forefinger to make certain nobody would consider the gesture a threat, and offered it to the sheriff. “It’s the, um, murder weapon.” Kobler gave him a sharp look, before offering his thanks with a nod. Behind him, the remaining deputy produced a plastic bag. As Jake dropped the gun and ammo clip that he’d stashed in a pocket into it, the sheriff left the bus, already calling new orders into his radio.

o0o

Chapter 2

While they waited for the promised local driver to arrive, the remaining deputy headed for the back of the bus, armed with a notepad and pen. Bouncing a knee, Jake watched him work his way forward, collecting the names and addresses of the passengers.

After several minutes, when the deputy was still only halfway down the bus, a man dressed in shirtsleeves climbed the steps into the bus. “Jim Davids,” he introduced himself as he waved for Jake to vacate the driver’s seat. “I’ll take it from here, son. Hospital first, right?”

Sliding off the vinyl seat, Jake confirmed their route, all too happy to relinquish the wheel to Davids and head back to Anna. She’d slipped into the seat beside the injured girl. Jake planted himself in the row opposite.

The girl blinked curiously at him, and he offered her an encouraging grin. “You alright?” A bruise was starting to spread out from under the bandaid Anna had applied.

“This is Jake.” Anna flapped a hand in his direction. “Jake, this is Robin.”

“Hi.” Robin’s voice barely made it above a whisper.

The deputy with the notepad reached them and Robin gave him an address in Houston. Once the deputy finished writing her details on his pad, he lifted an eyebrow at Anna. To Jake’s surprise, she also offered the deputy an address in Houston. He assumed it was her parents’. When it was his turn, he stated his name and then hesitated. What to tell the man? His San Diego location might send up red flags, and he hadn’t been to Jericho in five years…

“Same as mine,” Anna jumped in, before Jake could figure out what to say. He blinked at her, startled, and she gave him the slightest of shrugs in reply.

“Hm. That so?” The deputy peered from one to the other. Something in their behavior must’ve raised his suspicions. Anna looked right back at him, her expression innocent. “Alright.” The deputy scratched a check mark on his notepad. “Don’t forget, as the sheriff said, we’ll be wanting to talk to you in the morning.”

“Of course,” Jake confirmed. Talking to the cops wasn’t high on his list of favorite things to do on the best of days, but tomorrow was a full night away, and everything could be different then. And if not…? He’d cross that bridge if he had to.

Having gotten the information he wanted, and having delivered his warning, the deputy moved to the front of the bus to interview the guy in the denim and buttons. As soon as he was out of earshot, Jake leaned toward Anna, wanting to ask her why she’d told the deputy he was living with her. But Robin was peering past her shoulder, and Jake checked himself. He didn’t want to get into it within the girl’s hearing. Later, he promised himself, straightening up. Perhaps it was as simple as Anna also realizing that giving the authorities the address for his San Diego apartment wasn’t a good idea. It was bound to be listed as the scene of a suspicious death.

“Jake? What do you think happened?” Robin asked shyly, distracting him from further speculation. She didn’t have to explain what she meant: the terrifying cloud they’d seen rise up was still foremost on everyone’s mind.

“Dunno.” Jake raised his shoulders. “Could be anything. Could be―.”

“Next stop: hospital, going on to the Holiday Inn,” Davids’ cheerful announcement cut him short.

With a jolt, the bus began moving. Looking out the window, Jake spotted the deputy who’d taken their names trotting up the steps into city hall.

It was less than two miles to the hospital, and the ten minutes it took to make it there passed in silence. Jake spent the time contemplating the mushroom cloud. He didn’t want to instantly assume the worst, but no matter how he came at it, it looked very bad. No matter the cause―an attack or an accident―something had gone horribly wrong near Dallas.

The bus drew to a stop at the bottom of the hospital drive. Davids hit the control that opened the doors and pivoted in his seat, seeking out Jake’s gaze across the rows of chairs. “Sorry, I’m gonna have to let you guys off here.” He dipped his head toward the drive, drawing Jake’s attention to the fact it was blocked by a clutter of cars parked at crazy angles, as if their drivers had simply abandoned them where they stood. A pair of orderlies pushing a gurney wove their way through the tangle, presumably to remove the body and take it to the hospital morgue. “Get a doctor to take a look at that cut, okay?” Davids gave Robin a wink and a smile, and she ducked her head shyly.

Jake got to his feet. “Will do.” While Anna started helping Robin out of her seat, he went back to where he’d stashed his and Anna’s bags on the overhead rack hours ago.

Robin hesitated at the top of the steps. “What about my suitcase?”

“Don’t trouble yourself with that, sweetie. We’ll take care of it,” Davids promised. He swiveled in his seat, looking for confirmation from Jake as he collected his bag and Anna’s carry-on.

Robin looked back at Jake, chewing her bottom lip. He waved reassuringly at her; he and Davids would see she got her suitcase.

“Poor thing,” the old lady muttered, watching Robin and Anna descend from the bus and start up the drive toward the ER entrance. She turned and smiled up at Jake, her eyes moist. “You’re an angel, looking out for her.”

“Um…” Unsure what to say, Jake ducked his head and concentrated on hoisting his and Anna’s bags onto his shoulder. His cheeks were burning. If only she knew what he’d done…

Hurrying to the front of the bus, the bags bumping against his ribs, he was met with a frown fromDavids. “That all?”

Jake shook his head. “No, that’s just us. I believe Robin’s bags are below.”

“Ah, in the belly of the beast.” Davids clambered out of the bus ahead of Jake and fumbled around in the darkness until he located the catch to the luggage compartment. Inside, an assortment of bags and suitcases were jumbled untidily in a corner, thrown there by the emergency stop. Jake grimaced at the sight. He had no idea what size or color Robin’s suitcase was and they’d have to check the label of every piece of luggage.

Davids saw his expression. “You’re going to the Inn when you’re done here, right? I could leave her suitcase at reception. She can pick it up there later.”

“Thanks, that’d be great.” Jake gave Davids’ a relieved smile, though he couldn’t help wonder if the offer was a subtle way to ensure all the bus passengers would do as the sheriff had told them to and none of them would slip away into the night. Didn’t matter; he had no plans to sneak away. Where could they go, anyway? He and Anna had no transport, and Vernon had looked pretty chaotic and unsettled. Not a place he wanted to run around in.

No, for tonight they were stuck, same as everyone else. They’d be okay, too, as long as they were gone before their names got entered into the system and Ravenwood was alerted to their whereabouts. That’d take a while: the sheriff’s office had more pressing concerns than data processing. Besides, with the emergency generators running, they likely wouldn’t have their network up anyway.

No, for a short while at least, he and Anna were as safe as could be.

Davids slammed the luggage compartment closed and, waving a final farewell to Jake, clambered back on board. Jake watched the bus’s tail lights for a few seconds as it ambled on in the direction of the hotel. Then he turned and, tracking after the orderlies, who’d collected the dead driver’s body while Jake and Davids had been busy with the luggage, slogged up the hospital drive.

Through the front doors, the waiting room carried the typical hospital smell. despite the potted plants that tried to create a homey atmosphere: a mixture of anti-septic and unwashed bodies. The place was packed, and the dozen or so plastic seats that had been placed around the walls were all occupied.

Anna was arguing with a harried-looking woman behind a counter, while Robin sat in one of the chairs, kicking her leg and looking lost. Jake made his way over to her, at the same time taking stock of the room. An old man in the corner rasped with a bad cough as he glanced in Jake’s direction; next to him was a boy with his parents. The kid’s cheeks were streaked with dried tears and from the way he cradled his arm, it looked like he’d broken his wrist. A young woman limped past Jake, helped by a nurse, aiming for a curtained-off treatment room. Other clumps of people were scattered around the room, talking among themselves in low and urgent voices. Jake reckoned the Dallas cloud was the main topic of conversation, and that everyone was scared and unsettled.

“Hey.”

Robin slowly raised her head at Jake’s approach. Her gaze zoomed in on his hands, registering he was only carrying his and Anna’s bags, and a small line formed between her brows.

“Your suitcase’ll be waiting at the hotel,” Jake explained quickly, knowing what she must be thinking. “The driver said he’s gonna leave it there for you.”

Robin’s frown stayed in place. She scrubbed at her face, wincing when she accidentally touched the makeshift bandage covering the cut. “I don’t think I have enough money to pay for a hotel.”

Jake dropped the bags and knelt in front of her, squeezing her knee comfortingly. “We’ll work something out. Don’t worry about it, alright?” He saw she was holding a cellphone in her other hand and he nodded at it. “Were you trying to call someone?”

“My mom.” Her voice was small. “She was gonna pick me up at the bus depot. I don’t want her to worry when the bus doesn’t show up, but I got no signal.”

“The system is probably overloaded: too many people trying to make calls.” Jake smiled encouragingly. Better not to remind her she wasn’t supposed to use her cellphone inside a hospital anyway; she was plenty rattled as it was. “I’m sure one of the company staff at the depot in Houston will tell your mom what happened and that the bus had to go back to Vernon.”

“You think?” She shifted the phone to her other hand and rubbed her palm on her jeans.

“…all she needs is a couple stitches.” Anna’s voice cut through the general din in the waiting room. She sounded exasperated. Jake twisted around on his heels to look at the counter.

“Ma’am, are you a doctor?” The woman behind the counter was arching an eyebrow, giving Anna a quick once-over. Jake smiled to himself; he’d seen Anna stand up against drunk frat students, and he doubted the receptionist would find her easily cowed.

“Well, no, but―.”

The double doors leading into the reception area slammed open, and a panicked voice hollered, “Help! We need a doctor! Bill got shot!”

Conversations cut off abruptly and everyone faced the door. A large man with a shock of blond hair was half-carrying, half-dragging a second man in, propping him up with his own body. Jake judged they were both in their late forties. It was hard to tell, as they were both covered in blood. Wild-eyed, the blond took in the waiting room. The wounded man, his arm slung across the blond’s shoulder, was barely conscious, and from the amount of blood, Jake could tell he was badly injured.

The woman behind the counter sprang into action, abandoning Anna and hurrying over. From further down the hallway, other staff came running up, alerted by the shout for help. An orderly dragged an empty gurney toward the men. For all it was a small town medical center, they were efficient, Jake had to give them that. Within a minute, orderlies were rolling the gurney off, presumably to a treatment room, leaving a shocked silence behind. The receptionist was trying to calm the blond man, who kept mumbling, “I didn’t mean to do it, I thought he was a burglar,” over and over.

After several minutes, the blond man had gathered his composure enough that the receptionist could direct him to a chair, after ordering the father of the boy with the broken wrist to give it up. The blond man flopped into it like a rag doll, hands dangling between his knees and eyes turned toward the floor. With the crisis controlled for the moment, the receptionist returned to her station behind the counter. She blinked at Anna, as if she didn’t recall what Anna was doing there. Then she shoved a clipboard into Anna’s hands. Due to the hush that had fallen over the room at the arrival of the two men, Jake could hear every word clearly. “Please, ma’am, fill this out, and a doctor will look at your daughter as soon as one is available.”

That could be a while; Jake doubted they had more than one or two doctors on ER duty at the best of times. With the waiting room full and a gunshot emergency brought in, it’d be hours before anyone was free to see to Robin.

Anna accepted the clipboard, the receptionist leaving her little choice. “She’s not my daughter.” She sounded startled at the suggestion she looked old enough to be the mother of a fifteen year old.

The receptionist pressed her lips together unhappily. “In that case, I need to see a medical release from one of the girl’s parents, or a guardian.” She snatched the clipboard back out of Anna’s grip.

Jake got to his feet. “Hang in there, kiddo,” he muttered in Robin’s direction. “Be right back.”

“I―I don’t have one of those.” Anna heaved a tired breath. She put her purse on the counter and leaned forward. “Please, I just met her on the bus to Houston. There was a… an accident, and Robin needs help.”

The receptionist shook her head. “I’m sorry, Miss.” She put the clipboard behind the counter. “Without a release, I can’t―.”

“Excuse me,” Jake broke in. He held out his hand, giving a nod in the direction of the clipboard. “Can I have that?” The nurse hesitated and Jake lied, “I’m her father.” Under normal circumstances, it would’ve stretched credibility―if perhaps not by much―but he’d caught his reflection in the window as he’d walked into the hospital, and he figured that thirty-six hours without proper sleep, twenty-four of which he’d spent crammed into various bus seats, had aged him enough the receptionist wouldn’t question his statement. Belatedly, he prayed Anna hadn’t told the woman anything that would put the lie to his words.

Giving him another wary once-over, the receptionist reluctantly passed him the clipboard. Jake let out a quiet breath. Anna was staring at him, and he put a hand on her arm. He didn’t want her to accidentally betray him. “Thank you, I’ll handle it. If you could sit with Robin for a short while longer…?” He gave a slight tilt of his head in Robin’s direction, hoping that he sounded adequately distant to make the receptionist believe Anna was a stranger he hadn’t met until today.

Anna shot the woman behind the counter a last, baleful glare, pivoted on her heel and marched over to join Robin without a word.

Jake offered the receptionist an apologetic half smile. “I asked her to keep an eye on Robin. I guess she took it more seriously than I expected.” The woman hmm’ed under her breath, but she accepted his explanation.

Dipping a head at the clipboard in his hand, she told him, “Sorry, you’ll have to find your own pen. We’re making do, what with the power being out.” She waved vaguely at the computer on her desk, its screen blank. Jake understood; without a clue how long it would take for the power to be restored, the emergency generator would be dedicated to powering vital services such as respirators and heart monitors.

Taking the clipboard with him, he sauntered back to Robin and Anna. During his absence, the seat next to Robin had been vacated, and Anna had taken it. Jake knelt on the floor in front of them, balancing the clipboard on his knees. He reached for his duffel, intent on digging for the pen he thought he’d packed.

“Why did you tell her that?” Anna asked.

Jake shrugged bashfully. “It was the quickest way to handle it.”

What was important was to get Robin stitched up as soon as possible, so they could walk to the hotel and get some sleep. Anna was pale, her eyes bruised. Robin appeared ready to fall over from fatigue. And Jake knew he didn’t look any better himself. Trying to fight the health care system’s bureaucracy would’ve taken precious time, while a simple lie would quickly cut a path through it. He only hoped he’d be forgiven for telling the white lie, and that it wouldn’t come back and bite him.

“If they find out―,” Anna started in a hushed whisper.

“―we’ll be long gone,” Jake finished for her. Locating the pen, he clicked it on and reached for the clipboard.

He glanced up at Robin. “I’m gonna need your help with this.” He tapped the pen against the admission form on the clipboard. Telling the nurse he was the girl’s father was one thing; he wasn’t gonna risk her life by lying about her medical history.

Robin had been shifting her focus from him to Anna and back as they talked. Realizing she hadn’t overheard what he’d said to the receptionist, he explained how he’d lied to the hospital about being Robin’s father.

She giggled. “You’re a lot cuter than my real dad.”

Anna uttered a soft noise that was half a laugh, and Jake offered Robin an embarrassed grin, feeling the tips of his ears grow warm. He dipped his head, concentrating on the questions on the form, and filling in the information Robin provided as he read them to her.

Once he was done, he took the clipboard back to the counter. The receptionist scanned the form. “No insurance?”

“I’ll pay in cash.” Trying to invent credible insurance policy numbers and company names had proved an impossible task for his already fatigued brain; rather than risking the hospital discovering he’d lied before they’d treated Robin, Jake had decided to use Freddy’s money. He didn’t like dipping into those funds, which were supposed to go to Anna’s baby, but this was an emergency. Anna hadn’t objected, either, when he’d suggested it; Jake reckoned she’d taken a liking to the girl, and being able to do something to help her made her feel less powerless.

God knows he could sympathize.

The receptionist made another dubious humming noise, but she scribbled a few words on the clipboard and put it into a rack filled with a half dozen similar boards. “We’ll call your name when the doctor can see her.”

o0o

As Jake had feared, several hours passed before a harried doctor could deal with Robin’s injury. He did a handful of quick tests, waving a pen in front of her face and telling her to follow it without moving her head, and declared she didn’t have a concussion. Less than five minutes after he came to see her, he’d moved on to the next patient, leaving it to a nurse to sew up Robin’s cut with a couple stitches. In a way, it was all disappointingly anticlimactic, but Jake wasn’t complaining. Just a few minutes later, Robin was released, sporting a fresh new bandage over her injury and clutching a bottle of tylenol to relieve any further pain.

The streets they trudged along toward the Holiday Inn had emptied during the long hours they’d been stuck at the hospital. If he hadn’t been so dog tired, Jake would’ve enjoyed the quiet walk. But it was well past midnight by the time they plodded into the hotel reception. Several lit candles stood on the counter; a computer, currently blank-screened and useless, sat on the desk behind the counter. Near the door, a small red suitcase stood forlornly.

“Oh!” Robin let out a small squeal of pleasure at the sight, and Jake was glad to see Davids hadn’t forgotten his promise to leave her suitcase in reception. One less thing to worry about.

The night clerk, a short man with small, squinty eyes, peered up at them suspiciously as they entered. He was lounging in an office chair, with his feet up on the counter, and abandoned the magazine he was absorbed in only reluctantly. “Help you?” he asked brusquely.

Jake moved up to the counter. “Three singles, please.” He pretended not to notice the picture of a naked woman on the magazine’s cover when the clerk folded it closed. The clerk raked him up and down with a narrow-eyed gaze, before shifting his attention to Anna and Robin next. For reasons Jake couldn’t entirely pinpoint, he had to fight the urge to take a step sideways and block the guy’s view. After a long minute, the clerk drawled, “Sorry, only got one room left. Twin beds.”

Jake groaned inwardly. They couldn’t seem to get a break today, could they? He half-turned toward Anna, not knowing what she’d want him to do.

She met his eye. “Do it. We’ll manage.”

“Alright, we’ll take it.” Jake turned back to the clerk.

With a grunt, the man pushed up from his chair and produced a small notepad from beneath the counter, one of those old-fashioned registry pads, with a carbon sheet to make a copy as you wrote. He located a pen, and slid both toward Jake, announcing, “That’ll be three hundred dollars for the night.”

“What?” Jake gaped at him.

The clerk smirked. “Including breakfast.”

“That’s―.”

“A rip-off.” Anna strode up, joining Jake at the counter. She was standing near enough he could feel her vibrating with suppressed fury. She sucked in a gulp of air. “The sheriff said we should―.”

The clerk barked a harsh laugh. “Kobler? Go take it up with him, if you want. This is still a free country, and he doesn’t run the place.” He leaned forward and planted his palms on the counter. Jake caught an unpleasant whiff of a smoker’s stale breath as he hissed, “No, lady, today, it’s all about supply and demand. But hey,” he pulled back, “you’re welcome to go someplace else.”

Jake clenched his jaw to keep from telling the clerk to go screw himself. Dallas had gone up in smoke tonight; hundreds of thousands people could be dead; and this prick was price gouging? But they had no choice: they were dead on their feet, without a car, and it was far too late to go find another place to stay.

“Not acceptin’ plastic, either. I’m gonna want to see cash.” The clerk waggled his eyebrows. “Unless the lady’s willing to pay in kind…”

At first, Jake’s tired brain refused to process what the clerk had said. Then outrage boiled up within him, and he moved to haul the clerk over the counter and pound some respect into the creep. Anna put a restraining hand on his arm, softly urging him, “Jake…”

Every muscle tense, hands curled into fists, Jake drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly, fighting to get his fury under control. Anna was right. While he wanted nothing more than to teach this jerk a lesson, getting into a scrap with the hotel clerk wasn’t going to serve any other purpose than making him feel better.

Aware he had no choice, and bitterly aware the clerk knew it too, Jake forced himself to unclench his fingers. Through gritted teeth he forced out, “We’ll pay cash.”

At least the clerk had the sense to not gloat; Jake didn’t think he could’ve been held responsible if the greedy thief had shown his triumph. Turning his back on the man, he unearthed Freddy’s envelope from his jacket pocket, where he’d stashed it after he’d gotten it back from Anna so he could pay for Robin’s treatment, and counted out three hundred dollar bills. He hesitated before putting the envelope away. He should give it back to Anna; the money was hers.

No. He stuffed the money back in his jacket. Better he hold on to it for a little longer for safekeeping. At least until they were out of sight of the thief behind the counter.

The clerk counted the bills slowly, before putting one in a desk drawer and folding the other two and stashing them in his pants pocket. He reached behind him, taking the last key hanging on the rack, and handed it over to Jake. “Lucky thing we still use them old-fashioned keys, huh?” He sketched a vague wave at the candles he’d lit around the office. “Or we’d’ve had to close up shop.”

“Wouldn’t that’ve been a shame.” Anna mumbled the words so quietly Jake reckoned only he heard them. He swallowed down a humorless chuckle and accepted the key without further acknowledging the clerk. Passing the key on to Anna, he grabbed their luggage again, adding Robin’s suitcase to his load, and followed Anna and Robin out.

“Can you believe that?” Anna burst out. The door had hardly fallen shut behind them. “Those rates are crazy!” Her voice shook with anger.

“Nothing we can do about it.” Jake was dimly amused it was the price gouging upsetting her and not the creep’s lascivious behavior. “Let’s get some sleep, alright?” He was too tired to get all worked up.

Anna’s face was a pale blur in the dark night. He saw the fight go out of her, her shoulders slumping forward. “It’s just, jerks like that make me―aargh!” She made an annoyed noise in the back of her throat, balled her fists and shuddered. Jake couldn’t help but grin―he’d never seen her so mad―and she awarded him a wry smile at her own expense.

“Where’s our room?” Robin yawned, falling asleep where she stood. Poor kid was so tired, she probably hadn’t caught half of the argument with the hotel clerk. Jake was glad of it; she’d been worried enough how she’d be able to pay for a hotel room without discovering they were getting robbed to boot.

Anna held up the key, squinting at the numbers etched into the hard plastic label. With the power off, the lot had been plunged in darkness. Fortunately, the sky was clear: while the moon was only a thin sliver of silver, the stars provided enough illumination for her to make out the inscription. “Room twelve,” she announced.

They located their room, on the ground floor, at the end of the square concrete building. Anna unlocked the door, and she and Robin entered ahead of Jake. The curtains were drawn and it was even darker inside. Anna and Robin were black shapes in the gloom.

“Jake?” Anna’s voice floated back to him. “Did you happen to bring a flashlight?”

“No.” He cursed softly under his breath; it had never occurred to him they’d need one when he was packing his bags in such a hurry to leave San Diego. But it was going to be very awkward for the three of them to move around if they couldn’t see a hand in front of their face. He struggled to come up with a solution, but before he’d gotten his brain working, he heard the rustle of clothing, followed immediately by a greenish glow that cast a pale sheen across the room.

“Cell phone.” Robin held the device up for him to see. In the sickly cast laid over her skin by the backlit screen, her expression was pleased, almost smug.

Jake grinned back. “Smart thinking.” The amount of light the phone gave wasn’t much, but in the pitch blackness of the hotel room, it was as if she’d switched on a spotlight. Glancing around, Jake saw the room was what you’d expect from a standard, generic hotel room: two beds, neatly made; a small writing desk; and a pair of uncomfortable-looking armchairs grouped with a tiny coffee table. A door opposite from him, barely visible, led to what he presumed was the bathroom.

Jake put the bags on the nearest bed. “I’ll see if our friend at the desk can lend us a candle or two.” Anna betrayed her opinion of Jake’s chances with a dismissive snort, but Jake was determined to get his way in this. They could make do with two beds for the three of them, but they’d need better light than Robin’s cell phone could provide.

As he’d expected, the clerk tried to charge him for the use of the candles. Jake refused to budge. Without Anna to hold him back, he leaned over the counter to snatch a handful of the man’s shirt and he pulled him close until the clerk reluctantly scrabbled around for a couple of stubby candles and a box of matches.

Returning with the candles, Jake took renewed stock of the room. Coffee making facilities were neatly stacked together on the desk. The machine would be useless without electricity, but the two saucers would make for decent candle holders. Grabbing them, he struck a match and touched it to the first candle’s wick. He waited for the wax to melt and then let a few drops fall onto a saucer to secure the candles’ butt end. He lit the second candle from the first and did the same. The soft, warm light of the twin flames caused shadows to dance on the walls.

Jake straightened. “You should switch your phone off.” A tiny red light was blinking on the bedside table, where Robin had put her phone. “You don’t want to run the battery down.”

Robin’s hands twitched. “What if my mom tries to call?”

Jake had no answer for her. The landlines were down―he’d tried the pay phone in the hotel’s lobby―and judging by the Trying to Connect message blinking on the cellphone’s display, so were the cell towers. With no idea when the electricity would be back on, or if the cell phone network would reactivate with it, he couldn’t predict when Robin’s mother’s call might get through.

Robin blinked at him unhappily, tears filling her eyes as she sat on the edge of the bed, her hands plucking at the seams of her jeans. “Is―is my mom gonna be okay?”

Anna paused in searching through her overnight bag. “Your mom’s in Houston, right?”

“Uh-huh.”Robin gave a sniveling nod. “My parents got divorced last year. I was staying with my dad, but he had to go on a trip, so I’m going back home to stay with my mom.”

“I’m sure she’ll be fine.” Anna clutched a clean shirt to her chest. “The explosion we saw happened near Dallas. Right, Jake?” She signaled for him to pass her one of the candles.

Jake wasn’t as certain that Houston was fine as Anna was. They had no real clue what had happened, and until they did, anything was possible. But Robin was peering at him hopefully, her eyes large and shining. Uncertainty be damned, Jake wasn’t planning to make it worse for her with useless speculation. “Yes, that was Dallas.” He picked up one of the saucers, shielding the candle’s flame with his hand.

“Was…” Robin frowned. “Was that a nuclear bomb? Those look like that, don’t they? In the movies, and stuff…” Her voice trailed off.

“Any really big explosion kinda looks like that, I think.” Jake carried the candle to the bathroom. He paused on the threshold. “Listen, we don’t know what happened, and guessing isn’t gonna make us any wiser. In the morning, the sheriff’ll have further information. And then we can take it from there.”

o0o

Jake woke with a start, sore and aching. The room was dim, subdued daylight filtering through the curtains. He tried to gauge the time; he couldn’t have had more than a few hours of sleep. Wriggling stiffly, he unfurled himself from the armchair he’d slept in. His spine popped as he sat up, and he grimaced.

Anna had suggested Robin take one bed and he share the second one with her. Jake had declined the offer. The beds were narrow twins and Freddy had died on his floor less than forty-eight hours ago; it hadn’t seemed right. Anna had rolled her eyes at him, telling him without words he was being silly. But she hadn’t pressed the issue. Stretching his creaking muscles, he regretted his decision.

Tugging the curtains open a little, letting weak sunlight flood the room, he discovered Anna’s bed was rumpled, but empty. Where could she have gone?

A knock and a thump, and then the sound of retching drifted from the bathroom. Jake padded over on socked feet and rapped on the door. “Anna? You okay?”

“I’m fine.” Her voice was a touch strangled.

“You sure?” The sounds he’d heard suggested anything but fine. “Can I get you anything?”

“Yes. No. Just go away and leave me alone.” The flushing of the toilet―thank God they had running water, even if it was cold―nearly drowned out the last word.

Jake hovered uncertainly at the bathroom door, debating whether to go in, until it occurred to him what was likely wrong. It had to be morning sickness. A flush of relief, mixed with helplessness, washed over him: it wasn’t something he could help her with, but at least she wasn’t really sick, either.

“Is Anna okay?” Robin’s sleepy question made him turn away from the bathroom. She was blinking blearily at him, rubbing at her eyes.

“She’ll be fine. Sorry I woke you.” The girl had fallen asleep the instant her head touched the pillow. Not surprising after all she’d been through.

“s Kay.” Yawning, Robin twisted around and snatched her cell phone from the night stand to check the display. Her face fell. “Still no service.”

“Power’s still out, too.” Jake flicked the light switch up and down a few times. The display on the alarm clock on the nightstand was also dead. “How’s your head?”

Robin fingered the bandage on her scalp. “Better, I think. It doesn’t hurt so bad.” Her stomach took that moment to growl so loudly that Jake could hear it in the quiet room, and she grinned wryly, cheeks coloring. “I’m hungry.”

“So I hear.” He grinned back at her. They’d all gone to bed hungry. The vending machines couldn’t operate without electricity, so they’d made do with the chocolate bars and tiny bags of peanuts they’d discovered in the small fridge under the desk. You were supposed to pay for them separately, but for three hundred bucks a night, Jake figured the hotel could throw in the snacks for free. “Wanna go see if we can find something to eat?”

“Okay.” She made to fling off the covers. “Um…?” As she glanced shyly at Jake, her blush deepened.

“Gimme a second, and I’ll wait outside.” Jake searched around for his boots, locating them under the desk, and stuffed his feet into them. Just as he was ready to leave and let Robin get dressed, the bathroom door opened and Anna walked out, wearing in an oversized T-shirt that reached to mid-thigh. Her face was pale, bruises visible under her eyes. “Are you―?” Jake began.

She offered him a glare and he snapped his mouth shut.

“Jake and I are going to look for breakfast,” Robin announced, blithely unaware. “You coming?”

At the mention of breakfast, Anna paled further, and for a second Jake thought she might faint. He tensed, ready to spring to catch her.

“I think I’ll skip it, thanks.” Anna swallowed, hard.

What the heck was the cure for morning sickness? Would it be different from other types of nausea? His mom had always fed him Coke and salty crackers when he was sick. “You want us to bring you anything?” Not that he had any idea if they’d find anything to eat. On the other hand, the power had been out for less than twelve hours. There was no reason to think the motel couldn’t serve some kind of food to its guests.

Anna started shaking her head. Thinking better of it, she allowed, “Maybe crackers. Or toast.”

Glad he could do something, Jake promised, “We’ll find something.” Anna crawled back into bed, and Jake quickly finished tying off his bootlaces and went outside to give Robin a chance to put on her clothes.

She came out five minutes later. Letting the murmur of many voices guide them, the two of them soon came across the small room set aside for breakfast. In spite of the sun streaming in through the windows, it was still dim inside with the lamps off. A plump woman bustled round overseeing the buffet that had been set up against one wall of the room. As soon as she spied Jake and Robin, she waddled up, greeting them with a warm smile that made her eyes crinkle. Her name tag identified her as Doris Cramer.

She took in the bandage plastered to Robin’s temple with a small frown. “Sweetie, are you alright?” Without bothering to wait for a reply, she went on, “Sorry to say we have no coffee.” She gestured in the direction of the table where the food was set out. “Or fresh rolls. Or waffles or pancakes or bacon either.” For a heartbeat, her face scrunched up in dismay at having to tell them this, before her smile reappeared. “We do have juice and crackers and fruit, and I kept the store room locked overnight, so the milk for the cereal is still cool.” She gestured them toward the buffet table. “Eat, eat as much as you can. Feel free to pack yourselves a lunch too. It’ll all be spoiled tomorrow anyway, if the electric doesn’t get fixed soon.”

Jake couldn’t help return her smile. The woman’s friendly demeanor was such a far cry from the sullen greed of the night clerk, it was rather disorienting, as if he’d woken up in a different world. Was she aware of the kind of high room prices the clerk had charged her guests?

Taking another look at the guests milling around by the buffet, selecting bowls and carrying glasses filled with beverages, Jake recognized several people from the bus. “Has there been any news about what happened?”

Doris’ smile faltered. “Haven’t heard a peep. The phones aren’t working, and without the electric―.” She busied herself straightening a pile of paper napkins. “Was a horrible sight, wasn’t it? That cloud? Terrible, terrible thing.” She shuddered. “They say the governor’s declared an emergency. And my cousin said her neighbor’s boy spotted tanks going south from Quanah early this morning.” She wrung her hands. “National guard, he said.”

At the far end of the buffet, one of the guests dropped a glass and it shattered on the tile floor with a loud clatter. The room fell into a hushed silence, everyone staring in the direction of the noise. Doris swiveled on her heel toward the commotion.

“Never you mind that,” she comforted the guest who’d dropped the glass and was gawking at the puddle of juice on the floor in consternation. “Just a little accident. No harm done.” She redirected her attention briefly to Jake and Robin. “Excuse me, I’ve to go…” She waved toward the mess. “I’m by myself this morning, you see. None of the staff have showed up for work.” She sighed and gave another shoulder roll. “I guess they all have important things to do at home, eh?”

Not giving Jake a chance to respond, she bustled off to get a mop and went to clean up the spilled juice and sharp glass shards. Robin watched her go. “Wow…” She giggled behind her hand.

Jake grinned. Though she wasn’t half as skinny, Doris reminded him of Gracie Leigh, who could also gossip a mile a minute while she packed up your groceries… A pang of unexpected homesickness stabbed him. He hadn’t felt that in a good while. And why would he think of Gracie all of a sudden?

He gestured toward the buffet table, and suggested to Robin, “Let’s get something to eat.” Spying a basket filled with cellophane-wrapped crackers, he added, “And take some of those for Anna.”

Robin’s amusement over their cheerful hostess faded and a wrinkle formed between her brows. “Is Anna sick? She’s gonna be okay, right?”

“I think so.” Jake gathered a handful of the crackers and stuffed them in his jacket pocket. He added a couple of single serving jam containers and peered around to see if he could spot any bottled juice or water. “She’s not sick, she’s pregnant.”

“Oh…” Robin poured cereal into a bowl and added milk. She stirred it in silence. “Is she your wife?”

“What?” At first, Jake didn’t understand what she was talking about. “No. No, Anna’s―.” He paused. Freddy’s fiancée. Was Freddy’s fiancée. Freddy, who’d gotten killed because Jake had convinced him to stand up to Ravenwood. “It’s a long story.” He suddenly wasn’t hungry any longer.

Robin’s face made it clear she wanted to ask more questions but something in Jake’s gaze warned her Jake didn’t want to talk about it and she went to search for a spoon for her cereal without another word.

While Robin discovered the silverware and found a place at one of the tables to sit, Jake stayed to take stock of the rest of the food on display and attempted to decide what he wanted. Scratching the stubble on his chin―he hadn’t had time to shave yet―he suppressed a yawn: he’d give his right arm for a cup of coffee. Finally, he settled on a pre-packaged carton of yoghurt―strawberry, the lid said―and a piece of fresh fruit, and poured a glass of orange juice.

Juggling his haul, he joined Robin at the table. The elderly couple from the bus was sitting nearby. The Tuckers, they’d told the deputy their name was. They’d been traveling to Dallas from Albuquerque to visit their daughter and grandchildren. The gray-haired Beatles fan was standing at their table, talking to them. What was his name again? Jake raked his brain. Harper, right. This morning, Harper had ditched the jacket; he was dressed in a white T-shirt, frayed at the collar. He looked unconcerned, a sharp contrast to the older couple, who were frazzled, as if they hadn’t had any sleep.

Mr Tucker patted his wife’s hand gently. “Honey, Linda and the boys are fine.” By his tone, he was trying to convince himself as much as his wife.

“I’m gonna go by the bus station,” Harper announced, taking a large bite of one of the frosted cinnamon rolls from the buffet. Speaking around a mouthful of roll he added, “I reckon Greyhound owes me a ride to Houston.”

Mr. Tucker dabbed his mouth with a napkin. “We were going to Dallas. I don’t know, maybe we’d be better off going home again.”

“What if Linda needs us?” his wife asked. She moved her hands into her lap, folding them together tightly.

He touched her arm. “Honey, if we were to go to Dallas, we’d only get in the way of any relief efforts.”

“We could stay here?” she suggested. “At least for a day or two? And once the phones are working again, we can call Linda and she can come pick us up?”

Harper’s brows drew together in skepticism. Thankfully, he kept his mouth shut and didn’t trample on Mrs Tucker’s hopes that her daughter and grandchildren were all right. Spying Jake watching them, he waved him to come over. “Hey, you. Jake… It is Jake, right? We’re discussin’ our options. What’re you and that pretty lady of yours plannin’ to do?”

Mrs Tucker’s head swiveled on her thin neck as she looked around the room. “I don’t see her… Hello, sweetie.” She bestowed a tremulous smile on Robin.

“Anna’s not feeling so great this morning.” Jake put the food he’d collected on Robin’s table. “And we haven’t talked about what we should do yet.” He didn’t expect it would require a lot of discussion: he was pretty certain that Anna would insist on going on to Houston. Her parents were there, and she had nowhere else to go. As for his own plans, nothing had changed. He’d deliver her safely to her family and then head north to Kansas. Confirm that everyone back there was all right. “Go on, I guess.”

“What do you think we should do?” Mrs Tucker wanted to know from him. “Stay put? Go home to Albuquerque?” She blinked up at him expectantly, as if trusting him to have all the answers.

“Um…” Jake stuttered. “Ma’am, I honestly couldn’t tell you.” Until they got further information about what had happened, it was impossible to make decisions. “I’d suggest we make for the sheriff’s office and learn what they can tell us before deciding.”

Her husband nodded sagely, glad to have someone give him direction. “Yes, yes. The sheriff said he’d see about getting us on our way, didn’t he? Honey, that’s what we should do.” He helped his wife to her feet and together, they shuffled from the room, her hand resting on his forearm for support.

Harper huffed as he watched them leave, and muttered, softly enough that the Tuckers wouldn’t hear him, “Good luck with gettin’ that damned sheriff to get you home.” He tilted his head to squint up at Jake, who was a couple inches taller. “Best be goin’, too. See you around?”

“Sure.” Harper had also been going to Houston, and a part of Jake said they should hook up. Safety in numbers and all that. But there was something about the man that set off his inner alarm bell. He didn’t know what―surely it wasn’t the Beatles button―so he simply kept his mouth shut as Harper, snatching another cinnamon roll from the buffet, strode out.

o0o

Chapter 3

The sun was high by the time Anna felt better. She’d nibbled on a few of the crackers Jake had brought her, and they’d settled her stomach enough that she dared to get up and get dressed. After that, they’d packed up quickly and agreed to go by the bus station first to see if any services to Houston were running.

Jake scanned their surroundings as they ambled along the road toward town. In contrast to the snarls of the previous night, it was largely devoid of traffic and the handful of cars that passed them were driving quickly. Everything looked so normal, Jake could almost believe nothing terrible had happened. Overhead, the sky was a clear, pale blue, and it was getting warm, though a storm was building on the horizon far to the north. Watching the clouds rising in the distance and drifting slowly east, Jake hoped the bad weather would stay where it was.

At least the radiation will be blown in the other direction… He didn’t want to think about the folks who lived on the far side of Dallas, in eastern Texas and Louisiana and southern Arkansas.

“Jake?”

Jake’s long legs had carried him ahead of the two girls and he slowed his pace to allow them to catch up. He used the pause to shuck his jacket and tie it around his waist.

“I’m sorry I was such a bitch to you this morning.” Anna fell into step beside him.

“That’s alright.” He shrugged off her apology. She’d been upset and sick, and as far as confusing female tantrums went, he’d seen Emily throw far worse, back in the day. Anna’s flare of temper had barely registered on the scales.

Anna shook her head. “No, it’s not. You’re here because you wanted to help me, so it’s not fair for me to take my frustration out on you.” She worried her lip with her teeth. “I’ve been sick a few times,” she confessed, “but nothing so bad as this morning…” He caught the hidden doubt in her voice.

“We could go by the hospital,” he offered. “Have them check you out.” He’d suggested it the previous night while they were waiting for Robin to be taken care of. Anna had refused, saying she was feeling okay, and that she’d see a doctor once she got to Houston.

“And deal with Nurse Dragon?” Anna snorted a laugh. “No, thank you.”

Jake chuckled. “Good point.”

“It’s probably the stress.” It was half a statement, half a plea for reassurance.

“Probably.” He was happy to comfort her, though he’d have preferred a real doctor to confirm the diagnosis.

“Are you having a boy or a girl?” Robin’s suitcase’s wheels rattled noisily on the pavement as she yanked it with her.

“Don’t know yet.” Anna’s anxious expression turned into a soft smile. “It’s too early to tell.”

“Oh.” Robin fell silent for the next dozen paces. “I think a girl would be fun, don’t you? Or a boy?” Her brow furrowed thoughtfully.

Jake laughed. “I think those are all the options there are.”

Robin stuck her tongue out. “What do you want to have: girl or boy?”

Jake’s good cheer evaporated. “That’s―.” He snuck a peek at Anna. She’d gone pale under her tan, her fingers pressing dents in the material of her shoulder bag. He lowered his voice. “I’m not the father.”

“The father’s dead.” Anna hissed the words, taking several large strides until she’d pulled ahead of them.

Color rose in Robin’s cheeks. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to―.”

“Not your fault.” Jake wiped an arm over his face, adjusting his duffel bag. “You couldn’t have known.” Wouldn’t hurt if she wasn’t quite as blatantly inquisitive, though, he thought unkindly, noting how Anna’s distress showed in every line of her body. He sighed. “Let’s keep going.” It wasn’t fair to blame Robin’s curious nature: if he’d explained to her the first time she’d asked about him and Anna, all this could’ve been avoided.

Luckily, the bus depot was close by to distract Anna from her misery. But as they rounded the corner, they quickly discovered they could forget about finding any help there. The tarmac was empty of vehicles, with only oil stains providing silent mementos to the countless buses that had passed through. The ticket office, across from the depot, had its blinds drawn. A handwritten note in the window proclaimed No Service Till Further Notice.

Jake combed his fingers through his hair, blowing out a long breath.

“So much for that plan,” Anna huffed, voicing what Jake was thinking. She sounded more disappointed than upset.

“How am I going to get to my mom now?” Robin plopped down on her suitcase, her shoulders slumped forward.

“Hey.” Setting his duffel on the ground, Jake crouched in front of her and reached for her hands. She lifted her head, her eyes swimming with unshed tears. “We’ll figure it out, okay? We’ll get to Houston, the three of us. One way or another.” As he heard himself speak, he winced inwardly. Damn him and his big mouth. What was he thinking? He couldn’t be responsible for a teenager as well as Anna. Hadn’t the last six months proved he could barely take care of himself?

“Promise?” Robin’s face lit up with a tremulous smile.

“Promise.” Jake squashed his misgivings. No way would he abandon her now. He thought fast. Maybe they could rent a car. He made a note to check for rental places.

Anna briefly rested her hand on his shoulder. Automatically he reached up to cover it with his own, a silent reassurance. He was rewarded with a slight squeeze before she pulled her hand away.

Pushing to his feet, he picked up his duffel and offered to take Anna’s bag from her. If they had to walk further into town, he didn’t want her to have to lug it any longer. She shook her head. “I’m fine.”

Jake let the matter go. “Let’s go see if the sheriff has any further information.” He wasn’t keen on showing Kobler his face again, but they hadn’t many options left and the sheriff’s office was the obvious place for further intel on what had happened or was still happening.

o0o

Jake’s assumption Kobler might be able to tell them what was going on proved far from original. The sheriff’s station was jampacked, everyone clamoring to be heard at once. The dozens of voices shouting all at the same time created an ear-splitting racket in the enclosed space, and a wash of hot, stuffy air greeted them soon as they opened the door, evidence of a lot of people crammed in a small area without air-conditioning.

Anna froze on the threshold of the building. “I can’t go in there…,” she whispered. She swallowed visibly, and Jake was afraid she’d be sick again. Robin, peering past him, looked as horrified as Anna at the sight of the throng pressing forward.

He withdrew from the door, letting it fall shut, and surveyed the street they were on. Several nearby stores had their windows boarded up with sheets of plywood, a reminder of the looting of last night. Someone had taken the time to clean up the worst of the broken glass from the sidewalk–though they hadn’t been too fastidious and tiny shards sparkled in the sunlight.

Spying a bench under a tree on the sidewalk opposite the sheriff’s station, in front of city hall, he pointed it out to Anna. “Why don’t you two wait there, while I see what they can tell me?”

“Thanks.” Anna clutched her purse tighter under her elbow. “Want me to take that?” She meant the duffel hanging from his shoulder. “You can’t take that in there.”

With a wry huff of agreement, Jake started to pass her the bag. He checked himself, remembering her condition. It wouldn’t do to let her lug his heavy pack as well as her own bags. “No, that’s―Let’s get over to the bench.”

They crossed the street and Jake waited for Anna and Robin to settle on the bench before dropping his duffel at their feet. “I’ll be right back.”

He crossed back and threw himself into the melee, ready to claw a path through the crowd. Opposite the entrance, two red-faced, sweating deputies were standing behind a counter vainly trying to bring order to the madness. “Please, folks. One at the time. We’ll get to y’all if you just give us a minute.” From the untidy pile of forms on the counter in front of them, Jake surmised they had been trying to take reports. Nobody was paying much attention to the deputies’ request. Everyone was hollering their complaints, upping the volume as they tried to make themselves heard over the din.

“… haven’t we heard from the…”

“People are breaking…”

“…the sheriff or the mayor…”

“Hey, watch it, man!” The last was addressed to Jake, who’d bumped into a fat man’s back. He muttered an apology, hoping that would settle the matter, but didn’t stop in his attempts to move forward.

“I said―!” The man Jake had collided with grabbed for his sleeve. Jake’s stomach tightened. Looked as if, despite being in a police station, an apology wasn’t gonna satisfy the guy in his wound-up state. As Jake was gearing up to pull his arm free, he heard his name called.

“Mr Green?”

Searching for the source, Jake winced: Kobler had popped up in a doorway, presumably leading to his private office, and was beckoning him over. Fortunately, the sheriff’s interest in Jake made the other man back down and he let go of Jake with a final dark look. Even so it took Jake a handful of minutes to worm his way through the mass of bodies, doing his best to avoid treading on any more toes, before he reached Kobler. The sheriff curtly told him to get inside. As Kobler shut the door behind Jake, the noise cut down to a muffled murmur.

Glancing around, Jake discovered his initial guess had been right: this was Kobler’s office. Framed commendations hung on the wall behind a desk covered in heaps of paper. A languishing house plant squatted in a pot in the window. It showed every sign it hadn’t been watered in too long.

“Please, sit.” Kobler gestured Jake toward a hard-backed chair in front of the desk, while he trudged around and planted himself in the leather seat behind it. As he sat down, Jake snatched a glimpse of the computer screen standing on a corner of Kobler’s desk. It was blinking a steady “waiting to connect to network” message.

Kobler glared at the screen and frowned before reaching over to switch it off. “Damned machines,” he muttered to himself, before he raised his head and met Jake’s gaze. “Might’s well conserve the power.”

Jake waved in the direction of the computer. “No luck yet?” The screen message suggested the law enforcement authorities hadn’t yet gotten their network up and running again. Which, if that were true, would mean Jake’s and Anna’s names wouldn’t yet have been entered into the system. No red flags raised to make Ravenwood chase him and Anna to Vernon or give the San Diego police reason to call Kobler and have Jake detained for questioning.

Which left him wondering what it was the sheriff did want from him.

Kobler grunted a confirmation to Jake’s question. “We’re deaf, dumb and blind,” he groused, leaning forward to pull a sheet of paper from the pile closest to him and pick a pen from the holder. “Anyway, Mr Green…”

Jake frowned; he’d hoped the sheriff could tell him something. “You haven’t heard anything about what’s happened?” he interrupted.

Kobler peered up from studying the page in front of him. “Rumors and gossip, that’s all. We got refugees straggling in from Fort Worth. From what they tell me―.” He broke off and averted his gaze. “Terrible, terrible things.”

“Was it an accident?”

Kobler puffed out his cheeks. “We don’t know…” For a second time, he paused for a beat. “There’s word: clouds were seen over other cities too.”

Jake angled forward on his chair. His mouth had gone dry. “Other cities?”

The sheriff toyed with his pen, tapping it lightly against the surface of his desk. “All hearsay, mind. But they say Phoenix… Lawrence in Kansas… Denver… Chicago… I don’t really know.”

“My god…” Dizziness washed over Jake. He slumped back in his chair, taking a deep breath. “Lawrence? Why would anyone attack Lawrence?”

“Beats me.” Kobler put the pen down and stapled his hands. “You have family there?”

Jake closed his eyes, shaking his head. Not in Lawrence, thank God. But if what Kobler was saying was true, Jericho was smack in the middle between Lawrence and Denver. Bile rose in his throat. If the prevailing winds―. He stopped the thought short, swallowing hard; nothing he could do about it. He could only pray that Jericho was safe, and that his father was on top of the situation.

“Listen, Mr Green, none of this has been confirmed, so you best not concern yourself with it.” Kobler rubbed his neck. “I shouldn’t have told you any of this in the first place, it’s―.”

“Sheriff, you need to find out what’s going on,” Jake blurted out. He scooted forward until he could put his palms on the edge of the sheriff’s desk. The wood was cool under his touch. He didn’t care about this town, which he hoped to leave soon, but there was a bigger picture. “If this country’s under attack…”

“Now, wait a minute.” Kobler sat up straight, stiffly. “Nobody said―.”

“Multiple large explosions in different cities at the same time?” Jake laughed bitterly. He’d hoped that Dallas was an accident. An awful accident, but an accident all the same. “Would be one hell of a coincidence, don’t you think?”

To that, Kobler clearly had no answer, and he gave a dubious nod at Jake’s repeated suggestion he should send out his deputies to make contact with neighboring towns. “I’ll think about it,” he conceded. “For the time being, the National Guard’s handling it; they’ve been called down from Wellington to go to Dallas.” At Jake’s unspoken question he added, “They’ve been moving through town since sunrise.” He shook his head in answer to Jake’s next unvoiced question. “And no, they don’t know anything beyond what I just told you.”

Jake inclined his own head in understanding, staring at a scratch in the wood of the desk without seeing it. The National Guard would be better informed than the average citizen, but if those rumors Kobler had heard were true, their intel would be limited, same as everyone else’s. And if the guy in charge was smart, he wouldn’t go around spreading unconfirmed gossip any further than it already had. The panic from that could be worse than if the truth came out.

Kobler reached for his pen again. “Now, this matter of the dead bus driver…”

o0o

Gladly leaving the mayhem of the sheriff’s office some thirty minutes later, Jake shut the door behind him. He had to wait at the curb as a convoy of National Guard trucks rumbled by, heading east toward the highway. They were filled with uniformed men, their faces grim and worried. Jake didn’t envy those men at all. He’d witnessed the results of smaller bombs exploding in populated areas; he could only imagine the horror a nuclear blast would create.

As soon as the last truck had rolled by, Jake crossed the street through the dust slowly settling in the convoy’s wake and made for the bench where he’d left Anna and Robin.

“Jake!” Robin saw him first and she jumped to her feet, smiling widely. “Mr Harper was here. He says he’s going to Houston today, and he’s offered us a ride. I’ll be with my mom tonight.”

Jake couldn’t help but return her obvious delight with a grin of his own, at the same time raising an eyebrow in Anna’s direction for clarification.

“He said he was gonna get a car,” Anna explained, “and he said he can take us with him.” She blew a strand of loose hair from her face. “He told us to wait for him here. He’ll come pick us up in a bit.”

Jake surveyed the street, quiet in the wake of the convoy. He’d be interested to learn how Harper had gotten hold of a car. When Jake had asked where they might rent one, Sheriff Kobler had said the nearest rental station was in Wichita Falls. But hitching a ride would be the perfect solution to their problem. And maybe Harper had found a private individual willing to rent him their car, or perhaps he had friends in Vernon that were willing to lend them theirs. In any case, the sooner Jake could leave Anna in the care of her parents, the sooner he could go to Jericho.

Robin skipped to the curb, waving excitedly. “There he is.”

A cream station wagon with wood trim rolled to a stop in front of them. Harper tumbled out from behind the wheel, gesturing ostentatiously at the car and grinning at Robin and Anna. “Ladies. Your carriage awaits.”

Robin giggled. She scurried back to the bench to get her suitcase. While Harper waited for them, he darted a furtive glance in the direction of the sheriff’s office. Jake didn’t think Robin or Anna caught it, but his own brow furrowed, his earlier pleasure at so easily finding a solution fading. Something wasn’t right.

Jake inspected the car more carefully. The station wagon was an ancient model, its cream paint sprinkled with rust spots and small dents and scratches. It had clearly seen better days. Stooping, Jake peered through the window: a silver ornament in the shape of a heart dangled from the mirror on a small strap, the word Grandma engraved in its center. He straightened. “Where’d you get the car?”

Harper shrugged one-shouldered, giving a vague wave at the rest of the town. He didn’t say anything.

Jake’s eyes narrowed further, his misgivings growing. Darting a quick look of his own in the direction of the sheriff’s office, where a steady stream of people were going in and out, keeping Kobler and his deputies busy, he stepped closer to Harper and, keeping his voice low, asked, “Did you steal it?”

“Let’s say I… borrowed it.” Harper looked steadily back at Jake. “Look at the damn thing: it was rusting to pieces in some old crone’s driveway. Hell, the keys were under the visor.” Dismissing Jake, he rounded the station wagon to open the rear hatch for Robin’s suitcase, releasing a waft of air that smelled faintly of pine trees. His own faded green duffel lay on an old blanket in the otherwise empty space.”Besides, this is an emergency.” He slapped the car’s roof. “Gimme your bags, girl, and hop on in.”

Jake planted himself in front of Robin, preventing her with one arm from passing her small suitcase to Harper. “Robin, hold up a sec.”

“What?” Robin let out a startled squeak as she bumped into his arm. Harper quirked an eyebrow at Jake, mouth twitching wryly.

“Let me get this straight: you’re offering us a ride in a stolen car?” Jake could hardly believe the man’s nerve, parking right across from the sheriff’s station. Kobler might not be able to put out an APB on the car as soon as it was reported stolen, but there was no predicting how long it would take to get the power restored and give him access to the law enforcement’s network again. And it wouldn’t require a genius to figure out in which direction to look for the thieves, considering they’d all been stranded on a bus heading south.

No, Jake decided, he and Anna were in enough trouble as it was. The last thing he wanted was to get dragged back inside Kobler’s office to be detained for larceny. And they certainly didn’t need the local law as well as Ravenwood on their tail.

Anna must’ve read his thoughts on his face. Her expression sobered. Taking his cue from that, Jake firmly told Harper, “Thanks, but no thanks. We’re not that desperate.”

“I want to go.” Robin clamped her fingers over Jake’s arm, pushing at him. “Jake, I want to go home.” There were tears in her voice.

“I know you do.” Jake resisted her attempts to get past him. He dipped his head, seeking her gaze. “But this? This isn’t right. We’ll find another way. I promise.”

Harper barked a sharp laugh. “What other way? Think about it, dude. Dallas is gone. There are no buses. It’s everyone for their goddamn themselves, and I, for one, don’t wanna be stuck in this hellhole of a town a minute longer than I have to. C’mon, kiddo, if you wanna come, let’s get movin’.”

“Jake, he’s right.” Robin gave up on trying to force her way past Jake. She took a step back, unconsciously reaching up to touch the bandage on her head. “We tried the bus station; the note said there was no service.”

“We could ask people if we can borrow a car,” Jake countered. Or buy one with Freddy’s money if we absolutely have to―but he wasn’t so dumb as to mention the money within Harper’s hearing. The man had already proven himself a car thief, and Jake didn’t trust him at all. “It could take a couple days, but―.”

“Days?” Robin blinked at him. She hugged herself, looking torn.

Harper snorted to demonstrate his contempt for Jake. “Don’t be so friggin’ tight-assed, man, and get the hell in. We could be there tonight.” When nobody moved to take him up on his offer, Harper expelled a sharp breath. “Alright. Suit yourselves.” He reached for the hatch to slam it shut.

“No!” Robin shoved Jake out of her way and flung her suitcase into the back of the car. “I’m coming.”

“Robin, no.” Jake grabbed for her, but she danced out of his reach.

Anna, on Robin’s other side on the sidewalk, took her by the elbow, gripping lightly. “Robin, are you sure this is what you want to do?” Her voice was soft as she drew the girl aside, out of earshot of the two men.

Their heads close together, she kept talking quietly to Robin. Jake couldn’t hear what she was saying, but from their body language, Anna was urging Robin to reconsider her decision. She wasn’t having much success, by the looks of it: after a minute, Robin shook her head and stalked back to the car, scrubbing at her eyes with the heels of her hands.

“Robin, don’t be stupid.” Jake again snatched for her sleeve; he really didn’t want to let her go off alone with Harper.

“I’m not a child!” Robin tore herself loose from him. “And you’re not my father! You can’t tell me what to do!”

Jake winced as the white lie was flung back into his face. He bit back a sharp retort; it would only make her dig her heels in deeper. “Please, think about it.”

Tears were streaming down Robin’s face. “I just want my mom.”

“Jake, let her go.” Anna touched Jake’s wrist. “We have no right to―.” She broke off and drew a breath. “Robin’s old enough to make her own decisions.” The unspoken To make her own mistakes hung in the air.

“Fine…” Jake threw up his hands in defeat. “Fine!”

“That’s settled, then.” Harper pointed at the suitcase Robin had put in the back of the car. “That all your stuff, girl?”

Robin sniffled, wiping at her nose with the back of her hand. “Yeah. And this.” She offered Harper the small backpack from her shoulder, and he stashed it on top of the suitcase.

“Let’s hustle.” Harper slammed the hatch shut. “I wanna be in Houston before midnight.”

Robin paused beside the passenger door without getting in. She glanced at Jake and Anna from under her lashes.

Anna decisively took a step forward and pulled Robin into her arms to give her a quick hug. “Take care, you hear?”

Robin mumbled, “I will.” She turned toward Jake. “I’m, um…” Her voice trailed off and she scuffed at the ground with the toe of her sneaker.

“Hey.” Jake forced himself to give her a smile in encouragement. “It’s okay.” It wasn’t, at all, but he had no idea what else he could do to convince Robin to stay with him and Anna. He didn’t know Harper, and despite his peace sign button, for all Jake knew, the guy could be a rapist and a murderer as well as a car thief. Or just a plain bad driver who’d wrap the car around the first tree they came across. Awkwardly, unsure how she’d react, he drew Robin to him. She hugged him back, hard. “Be safe,” Jake muttered in her hair.

“I will.” Robin spoke in a whisper. She brushed a fresh tear from her cheek, offering him a tremulous smile at the same time, and got in the car.

Harper drove off, and Jake watched the station wagon’s brake light flare briefly as he steered them around the corner and out of sight.

“So… What should we do?” Anna’s quiet question broke Jake out of his reverie.

“I don’t know…” He plopped down on the bench, scrubbing a palm over his face. “See if we can get us a car, I guess.” He had no clue where to start looking, though. He glanced up at Anna. “Was I wrong? Maybe we should have gone―.”

“No.” She sat next to him, angling to face him. “No, you were right. With those guys that killed Freddy―.” Her voice caught on Freddy’s name, and she scrunched up her face. “I hope Robin’s gonna be okay.”

“Me too.” Would he ever learn if she’d reached her destination okay? Despite Anna’s reassurances, Jake still wished he’d tried harder to stop her, even if he didn’t know how.

Anna clutched her purse to her chest. “Did you talk to the sheriff? What did he say?”

Giving himself a mental shake, Jake filed his thoughts of Robin away. No use in fretting over what-ifs. What was done was done; Robin was gone, and he should concentrate on his and Anna’s next step. “Not much.” He rubbed his hands on his knees, watching another convoy of National Guard trucks roll by. “Wanted me to tell my side of what happened on the bus yesterday.”

“Did he…” She swallowed. “Did he tell you what happened in Dallas?”

“Not for a fact.” Jake tilted his head sideways at her. “Communications are down, and there’s no TV or satellite reception anywhere in town. All Kobler could give me was rumors and gossip.” He paused, dreading to tell her what the rumors said. Bracing himself, he added, “He said there’s talk of explosions in other cities…”

Anna sucked in a sharp breath. Jake hunched his shoulders, hating to be the one to break the news—but she’d find out eventually.

At last, Anna asked, “Are you sure?”

“Nobody’s sure of anything, seemed to me. But that’s what Kobler told me.”

The silence lengthened again. Jake didn’t dare look at Anna again, until she finally broke the quiet, whispering, “Does that mean what happened in Dallas… That it was an attack, not an accident?”

Jake tilted his head unhappily. “Probably.” As he’d told Kobler, it’d be too much of a coincidence to believe otherwise.

“Did he say which other cities were hit?” She cleared her throat. “Is Houston―.”

“No.” Jake shook his head sharply. “No, Houston wasn’t on the list.” He wouldn’t have allowed Robin leave with Harper if there’d even been a hint of rumor that Houston had been attacked. He’d have tied the girl down before letting her go.

Anna heaved a deep sigh. “Thank God.”

For several minutes, they sat in renewed silence, each immersed in their own thoughts. The crowds marching in and out of the building across the street were lessening. No doubt people were starting to come to grips with the fact that neither their sheriff nor their mayor had any more clue what was going on or what they should do about it than they did.

Kobler needs to send out those patrols. It’s what his father would do: pair up volunteers and have them go out on the main routes, at least as far as the next town. As Kobler had said, Vernon was deaf, dumb and blind to whatever was going on out there, and it sounded like the National Guard passing through didn’t know any more than that they needed to hot-foot it to Dallas. Jake shivered, seeing the mushroom cloud rising again in his mind’s eye. Perhaps, in this case, ignorance really was bliss.

He cleared his throat to draw Anna’s attention. “I was thinking,” he began slowly,” we should stick around for a couple days. You know, until we have a better idea of what’s what.” Vernon was a pitiful town, but it was safe. Safer than whatever was out there, at least.

“Jake…” Anna’s eyes filled with tears. “I can’t. My parents must be worrying themselves sick. Please…?”

Jake scratched his neck, regarding her thoughtfully. He’d half-expected that reaction from her; and maybe she was right. Maybe they were better off trying to reach her family as soon as they could. God knows what else was might happen in the next few days. “Okay.”

Again, they grew silent, Jake trying to come up with a plan for their next move.

Anna broke the quiet first. “Any ideas on what we should do?” She spoke softly, but Jake could hear the determination in her voice. He had to admire her for it: she didn’t give up easily. She snuck a peek at him.

“We’ll have to get a car.” He shifted on the hard bench. “Borrow one, buy one…” He huffed a wry laugh. “Steal one.”

Anna pressed her lips together, clearly not amused. Jake didn’t think it was very funny, either. Ironic, yes. Funny, no.

“What about renting?”

“Can’t. Kobler says the nearest rental place is in Wichita Falls.” He thought of the National Guard trucks they’d seen going southward. “Maybe we can hitch a ride,” he added without much hope. He suspected the National Guard wouldn’t be keen to take on passengers, and neither would anyone else. “Anyway,” he clambered to his feet and held out a hand to Anna, “whatever we decide to do, we can’t do it on an empty stomach.”

The small breakfast they’d eaten was hours ago, as his stomach was reminding him hollowly. He doubted any diners were open, but he’d seen a supermarket that was doing business along the way to the sheriff’s office.

Anna took his hand and he helped her to her feet. She looked tired and drawn, but she didn’t object to going in search for lunch. He rasped a hand across the stubble on his chin―he probably looked like a bum―and reoriented himself, trying to recall where he’d seen the supermarket.

o0o

“I think they took it all,” the supermarket’s owner told him bitterly, fifteen minutes later. They’d caught him locking up his store, but he stepped aside to wave them through. “You’re welcome to whatever you can find.”

As they navigated the aisles, Jake quickly confirmed the manager’s words: the place had been stripped bare. Empty shelves bore silent witness to people’s desire to stock up on whatever they could grab. All that remained for them to find were a crumpled packet of chocolate chip cookies, two candy bars lodged in the gap between two of the shelves, and an overlooked jar of pineapple juice. Everything else, from laundry detergent to soda, and from toilet paper to canned goods, was gone.

Jake had hoped for something more substantial to eat than cookies. But beggars can’t be choosers, and Anna assured him it’d be fine. The store manager laughed humorlessly at Jake’s offer to pay him. He waved them off brusquely. “Your few bucks ain’t gonna make a lick of difference.”

Jake thanked him for his kindness. Clutching their meager discoveries, they left the man to lock up what was left of his ransacked store.

Ambling along the streets, Jake holding the packet of cookies between them so they both could dip in as they walked, they searched for the telltale tinfoil garlands of a car dealership. Jake also hoped to locate a bookstore where they could get a map of Texas. He did have a rough image of the state’s layout in his head, of course: Dallas and Fort Worth to the east, Houston in the south, near the coast, with San Antonio out further west completing the triangle of metropolises. The fastest track to Houston would be along the bus route. However, that would lead them straight through Dallas, and Jake was very sure of one thing: he wanted to give that city a very wide berth.

They located a bookstore a couple blocks further west, on Wilbarger Street, not far from the sheriff’s office. Miraculously, the store’s windows were unbroken, NYT bestsellers and celebrity autobiographies on display. Jake uttered a snort: books evidently hadn’t been high on the looters’ list of treasures.

He tried the door. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t budge.

“It’s closed.” Anna pointed at a sign in the window.

“I can see that,” Jake grumbled in annoyance. “But―.” With his hands shielding his eyes from the glare of the sun, he pressed his nose to the glass. The store was dark and empty. He knocked, rapping the glass with his knuckles, more to give vent to his frustration than in expectation of a reaction. A woman’s face, her features tight with worry, suddenly appeared in the gloom. Startled, Jake jumped back.

Anna giggled nervously.

Stepping closer to the door again, Jake raised his voice. “Please, we just want to buy a map?” He gave the woman his most innocuous smile.

She looked him up and down, and shook her head. “We’re closed,” she mouthed, pointing at the sign.

Jake gritted his teeth, but he couldn’t really fault the woman: having witnessed the violence last night, the town thrown into chaos and every man out for himself, he wouldn’t open the door to a pair of random strangers either.

While Jake was considering other places they might try for a map, Anna nudged him aside. She knocked on the door again. “Ma’am? Please? We have money.” She held up her purse to show the woman. “All we want is a map of Texas, so we can go home. Please?”

Jake didn’t hold much stock in Anna’s attempts to convince the scared bookstore owner. To his surprise, however, after a minute, the lock clicked softly and the door eased open a small crack. Jake started for the opening, but the woman put out a hand to stop him.

“Just her.” She aimed a finger at Anna. “Not you.”

Jake was still debating whether he should let Anna go in alone, when she brushed passed him. “I’ll be fine.” She slipped in through the narrow gap, and the door was quickly locked behind her. Jake assessed it, considering whether he’d be able to kick it in if he heard Anna cry out or if it took too long for her to return.

He needn’t worried: Anna slipped back out less than five minutes later, carrying a foldout Rand McNally map for Texas that she showed him triumphantly. The door slammed shut behind her. An instant later, the shades were yanked down roughly.

Jake grinned at her, relieved. “I guess that went well.” He nodded at the blinds.

Anna made a noise. “Give the woman a break. She’s just scared.”

“I guess.” He took the map from Anna and unfolded it.

Now that he could use the map to orient himself properly, Jake was dismayed to see how far from Houston they still were. Grasping it intellectually was not the same thing as seeing it on paper. And the need to avoid Dallas added to the distance, making it―he quickly calculated and checked against the scale― roughly five hundred miles altogether. Twelve hours, at least, driving on the highways. Assuming they didn’t run into any trouble, or weren’t forced to take any detours.

Assuming they could find a car…

“I also asked her about dealerships.” Anna grinned up at him, seemingly unaware of his dismay. “She said there’s a guy on Cedar Street. We could try there.”

“Hm.” Jake refolded the map and stuffed it in his back pocket. If they couldn’t get a ride, Houston might as well be on the moon instead of five hundred miles south. Crossly, he asked, “Where’s that?”

“Um…” Anna’s smile faltered at his clipped tone. “A mile in that direction?” She pointed back down the street they’d walked up ten minutes earlier, and cocked her head uncertainly as she watched him.

“Sorry.” He should be grateful she’d had the smarts to ask the bookstore owner about dealers. And it wasn’t Anna’s fault he was getting sick and tired of slogging first one way and then another across this damned town. He forced himself to smile at her. “That was good thinking. Thank you.”

They set off back in the direction they’d come. A dozen paces later, Jake let out a wry chuckle as another thought struck him. “With all the traipsing around we’re doing―”

With a laugh, Anna finished, understanding him at once, “―we could’ve been halfway to Houston already.”

o0o

Chapter 4

Tinfoil flags fluttered noisily in the breeze over the car lot. For-sale vehicles were parked in neat rows, hand-written price placards displayed on their dashboards. The office’s doors were locked tight, however, with the roller blinds drawn, and there wasn’t a salesman in sight. Hoping against hope, Jake knocked on the door.

“That’s not gonna help.” Anna’s disappointment was obvious in her irritated outburst.

Noting how she slumped in defeat against the fender of a nearby truck, Jake bit back the sharp retort that had sprung to his own lips. It wouldn’t do either of them any good. They were both tired of schlepping back and forth, and frustrated that, for all their effort, they were stuck in the same position as they’d been at the start of the day.

Before he could formulate a less irritated response, a small noise behind him made Jake spin around. “Help you?” The man who emerged in the doorway was old and stooped, with the weathered face of a guy who’d spend his entire life in the outdoors. His rheumy eyes blinked up at Jake and Anna dubiously.

“I hope so.” Jake gestured at the lot. “We need a car. To rent, or to buy.”

“I see…” Again, the man shifted his gaze from Jake to Anna and back to Jake uncertainly. “I’m sorry, but… The owner’s out of town. I’m just lookin’ after the shop, I don’t know that I can―.”

“Please.” Anna’s voice hitched on the word. “We do need a car.”

The man sighed. “Ma’am, even if I had the authority to sell you a car, how you think you gonna pay for it? Computers are down.” He knitted his brows together sadly. “‘Sides, I can’t file the proper paperwork.”

“We can pay.” Before Jake could stop her, Anna had dug around in her purse and pulled out the rumpled envelope. She waved the wad of cash in the man’s face. From the way his jaw stiffened in mistrust, it was the wrong thing to do.

“Sorry, can’t help you.” He started closing the door.

In desperation, Jake planted his foot on the threshold, preventing the man from shutting the door on them. He hissed at Anna, “Put that away.” Showing large amounts of cash was never smart: it gave people ideas. Although, from the frightened look on the man’s face as Jake blocked him from closing the door, robbing them was the furthest thing on the guy’s mind. He looked like he was afraid they’d rob him.

“Please,” Jake pleaded, “we’re stranded. We need transportation to get to Houston.”

The man let up shoving against the door to try and get Jake to step back. He heaved a shaky breath. “Burt’ll be back in a day or two. You could come back then.”

“Two days? I can’t stay here another two days.” Behind Jake, Anna uttered a noise somewhere between a sob and a dismayed moan.

It wasn’t lost on Jake how she was echoing Robin’s dismay when the girl had realized it could be days before she saw her mother. He had to come up with a solution soon, or Anna might do something as desperate and unwise as Robin had. “Is there any other place we can try?” He drew his foot back at last, flexing his toes inside his boot.

The old man mulled it over. “You could ask Murphy. Might be he’s got somethin’ he can sell you that’ll get you to Houston.” He proceeded to give them directions—to somewhere not far from the hotel they’d started out from that morning.

If he’d known how their day would go, Jake grumbled wordlessly, burdened under both his own duffel and Anna’s bag, they could’ve left their stuff at the hotel and spared themselves the effort of lugging it with them. Chances were, even if Murphy had a car to sell them, it would be better if they stayed the night and started out at first light. He didn’t want to drive around in the dark in a world that had gone as mad as this one had.

Murphy’s proved to be a junkyard close to the highway: dented clunkers in various stages of decay were lined up in untidy rows to be scavenged for usable parts, their faded paint gleaming dull orange in the late afternoon sun. “We’re supposed to get a car in this place?” Anna asked.

Jake didn’t answer. “Wait here,” he told her as they entered the gates into the yard. He dropped the bags from his shoulder. “I’ll see what I can find out.”

It didn’t take him long to discover they wouldn’t be able to buy a car at Murphy’s, either. At least not tonight. The garage bay doors were all closed and padlocked tight. A peek through a dirty window revealed a couple pickups inside, the hoods up, which implied Murphy was planning on working on them soon. He returned to where Anna was waiting. “They’re closed. We’ll try again tomorrow.”

Anna’s expression crumpled with this new blow, and she plopped down on a nearby heap of threadbare tires, hiding her face in her hands. Her shoulders were shaking.

“Hey…” Jake walked over to her, reaching for her and hesitating at the last second, unsure if he should console her. He knelt in front of her, putting a hand on her knee and squeezing gently. “Hey, it’ll be alright.”

She palmed the tears that streaked her cheeks. “I’m sorry.” She sniffled. “It’s just―.” She flapped a hand. “Everything.”

He pulled her to him, awkwardly hugging her. She clung to him for a moment before she exhaled slowly and drew back, wiping away her tears. She cleared her throat. “I guess we should find a place to stay for the night, huh?” She attempted to give him a smile, and he squeezed her shoulder.

“We can go back to the hotel. It’s not far.” Jake clenched his jaw in anticipation of a second round with the bottom-feeder at the reception; he wasn’t gonna pay triple what the room was worth a second time. He forced himself to relax—they’d cross that bridge when they came to it—and picked up their bags. Tomorrow he’d be smarter. He’d leave Anna at the hotel to wait for him, while he went out to search for a car. The time off her feet would be good for her, and he wouldn’t have to haul their stuff all over the place, either. Once he’d gotten them a ride, he’d swing by to pick her up, and they could be on their way at last.

o0o

They did spent the second night at the Holiday Inn; by the time they got back, the woman who’d served them at breakfast was working the reception and she offered them the same room for a normal price. She also confirmed the power and phones were still down and that there’d been no fresh news about what had happened in Dallas—or anywhere else—to add to what Kobler had told Jake earlier in the day. In the morning, Jake paid a second visit to Murphy’s. This time, the place was open. Murphy was a burly guy with a nose that gave the impression it had been broken once or twice. It hadn’t stopped him from sniffing out Jake’s desperation as he looked Jake up and down while he wiped his hands on a grease-smeared towel. Despite applying every haggling skill Jake had learned over the years, Murphy drove a hard bargain, forcing Jake to fork over a large portion of their cash. The car, an old Ford pickup that had been white once, wasn’t worth a fraction of the money Murphy was demanding, and Jake hadn’t been able to keep from grumbling about it.

“Final offer, take it or leave it.” Murphy showed Jake a gap-toothed grin, watching him with barely concealed glee.

If it had just been him to consider, Jake would’ve refused to give in to what was bare-faced robbery. But he couldn’t bear to come back to Anna empty-handed. Grinding his teeth in frustration, he watched Murphy count the bills he’d handed over with dirty fingers and tried to picture how happy Anna would be that he had finally found a way to take her home.

At least, he consoled himself, driving the pickup out of yard and turning onto the road to the hotel, the engine was in reasonable condition. He’d made sure of that before agreeing to Murphy’s outrageous demands, as well as demanding Murphy provide him with a tank of gas and a full spare can as well. He’d also insisted on crawling under the clunker to determine they weren’t going to break an axle on the first pothole they came across. Any other mechanical problem that might crop up, he should be able to deal with. He was confident the car would see them to Houston. So never mind that the truck’s bed was rusted through and you could see the road underneath it. Or that the vinyl upholstery of the bench was torn in a number of places and the springs were threatening to prick whoever sat on it.

Anna was waiting for him in the reception area of the hotel. She came out as soon as she saw him climb from the truck. Her face lit up with delight upon seeing him with a car, and Jake forgot his irritation over being ripped-off knowingly. Until he remembered he had to tell her he spent the money that had been meant to be for the baby.

“I didn’t want that money in the first place. That’s―.” She broke off what she’d been about to say, and gave him a quick hug. “Thank you.”

“‘s Nothing,” Jake mumbled, abashed. Seeing Anna happy had made him feel a whole lot better about their situation, despite the journey ahead of them.

Eager to get out on the road and get started, they quickly loaded their few belongings into the cab and Jake got in behind the wheel.

“Wait. There’s something…” Not explaining further, Anna trotted off toward the hotel’s small office. She returned a few minutes later, carrying a cardboard box. The friendly woman who ran the hotel waddled after her, clutching a folded blanket to her ample bosom.

“Mrs Cramer has been kind enough to give us supplies.” Anna tilted the box toward Jake, so he could see its contents. It was filled with cellophaned crackers, a couple of juice bottles, and several single servings of cereals. A few bruised apples had been tied together in a plastic bag and put with the rest.

“I also put in candles and matchbooks,” Mrs. Cramer puffed on reaching them. “I’d give you a flashlight if I had any to spare but…” She shrugged and waved at the building. “Guests have to come first. Here.” She held out the folded blanket to Jake. “You take this, too. You might need it.”

Jake was too startled to refuse the blanket, the wool scratchy against his palms as he clutched it. “How much―?” She’d charged them a decent fee for the room, so he was happy to offer to pay for the supplies.

“Oh, pshaw!” Mrs Cramer flapped a hand. “Don’t you worry ’bout that. The food’s gonna go to waste otherwise, and the blanket is old. Can’t properly use it on a guest bed any longer.

“Thanks.” Jake spread the blanket over the vinyl bench, covering up the worst of the tears and stains.

“You get this young lady safely back to her folks, you hear?” Mrs Cramer peered up at Jake. The stern expression she was striving for was betrayed by the twinkle in her eyes. Behind her, Anna offered Jake a shy smile. He suspected the two women had spend quite some time chatting while he was gone.

“Yes, Ma’am.” He grinned as he helped Anna into the cab.

Mrs Cramer, alone in the parking lot, waved as they left. Jake honked briefly in farewell and settled in for the drive.

By this time tomorrow, they would be in Houston, their ordeal over.

o0o

Less than fifteen miles later, by Jake’s reckoning, they came upon their first accident. A pale green Mercury had buried itself in the flank of a small red car―Korean or Japanese. Jake slowed to skirt around the wreckage. Short skid marks streaked the pavement, evidence the Mercury’s driver had braked hard, and glass and debris were strewn all over the road. Jake veered into the other lane and tried not to look at the body slumped over the wheel of the Mercury. Of the driver of the red car, he saw no sign.

“Jake, wait!” Anna twisted in her seat to peer at the wreckage as they passed by. “We have to stop and see―.”

“No, we don’t,” Jake interrupted. He risked a final glance in the rear-view mirror to confirm he was clear of the crumpled metal, before changing back to his own lane. “Didn’t you see the dust on those cars?” he added in response to the incredulous look Anna threw him. He couldn’t blame her; part of him had wanted to stop, the predisposition to help strong. But years of driving in convoys in the Middle East had taught him to resist the impulse. And while Texas wasn’t Iraq, instinct told him they should keep going. “That accident happened a while ago. There’s nothing we can do for them.”

The crash had probably happened right after the attacks; their bus driver couldn’t have been the only one so distracted by the mushroom cloud rising up that he’d failed to stay focused on the road. Luckily, their driver had had the presence of mind to hit the brakes before he smashed the bus into something.

“Oh…” Anna was quiet for a mile. Glancing in her direction from the corner of his eye, Jake could see she had her head bent as she plucked at the seam of her jeans. “I thought I saw…”

“I know,” he consoled her softly.

Anna swallowed, the blood draining from her face as the driver’s fate sank in. “If it happened that long ago, why hasn’t anybody come to take them to a hospital?”

Jake shifted gears and pressed the gas pedal deeper. The truck gained speed reluctantly. “Guess everyone’s busy.” Or could be they all preferred to stay holed up in their towns, like Sheriff Kobler and his deputies.

No, that wasn’t entirely fair. Kobler had had his hands full in town, as had the hospital staff, if those hours they’d waited for someone to see Robin were anything to go by. They wouldn’t have had anyone to spare to take care of the crash victims―assuming they were even aware an accident had happened.

Anna hmm’ed unhappily, but she didn’t argue his point. She’d seen her share of the chaos in Vernon.

As the miles slipped by under the old truck’s wheels, they met one other car, heading north. Otherwise, the road was completely deserted. As the lone car, a sedan sagging on its springs under the furniture and boxes piled high on its roof, flashed by, Jake snatched a glimpse of children’s pale faces in the back seat, bags and suitcases piled high around them.

A dozen miles further on, they came across their second wreck: a single-car accident, where an old station wagon had driven straight off the road, diving nose-first into the dry ditch running alongside the highway. The windshield was cracked, the car abandoned, and they saw nobody, alive or dead. Jake didn’t even slow down.

The further they went, the more his skin prickled with unease, an itch he couldn’t scratch. The news that a number of cities had been hit had kept him awake half the night and he wished he hadn’t given Kobler the gun after driving the bus back to town; he was slowly beginning to understand how little he truly knew of what had been going on in the rest of the world while he’d focused on getting them moving again. A box of crackers and a ratty blanket made for poor preparation for all the possible contingencies he was starting to imagine.

Despite his misgivings, he kept the Ford at a moderate clip; this early in their journey, he didn’t want to strain the old engine unnecessarily. He was also trying to make up his mind about the best route to take. Should they stick to the highway? Or would it be wiser to go by smaller, lesser-used roads? On the one hand, the highway was faster and would get them to their destination sooner. On the other, all it would take was one bad pile-up they couldn’t get around and they’d have to turn back and take a detour anyway. He reckoned there was less chance of running into something like that on the backroads.

Another hour went by. They passed through several small settlements, all of which appeared utterly deserted, though Jake wasn’t sure if that was a good or a bad sign. He reckoned they’d made thirty or forty miles since saying goodbye to Mrs Cramer―the truck’s odometer was broken―and was moderately pleased with their progress. Especially as they hadn’t seen any further wrecks after the first two accidents and he was growing more and more hopeful the highway would be clear all the way to Houston.

At his side, Anna had drifted off into a light doze, the car’s gentle motion slowly making her drop sideways until her head was resting on Jake’s shoulder. Jake hardly dared to shift gears for fear of jostling her awake.

To their unspoken mutual relief, she hadn’t been sick on waking. But these last days had been stressful. While Jake didn’t know much about pregnancies or babies, he didn’t believe stress could be beneficial. He planned on providing her with as much rest as possible.

He drove on, yawning and fighting off sleep. The area they were traveling through was monotonous: flat farm fields or bare plains, with patches of low, pale brush dotting the landscape left and right. He could see for miles―if there’d been anything worth seeing. He wished the Ford had a radio to help him stay awake.

Then something on the road ahead of him made him blink into the glare of the sun. What the hell…? Had he fallen asleep without noticing, and was he dreaming he was driving? No. He gave himself a mental shake to dismiss the theory. That couldn’t be; he’d have crashed the Ford for certain if he had.

The air over the road was shimmering with heat, so his second, more rational thought was that what he was seeing was a heat-induced mirage. But though he blinked repeatedly, resisting the urge to scrub at his eyes, the sight in front of him remained the same, quickly growing larger as he got closer. Reflexively, he eased his foot off of the accelerator and the truck slowed to a crawl.

The change in motion woke Anna and she started upright. She hid a yawn behind her palm, adding an embarrassed, “Um…,” once she realized she’d been using Jake’s shoulder for a pillow. He offered her an absent half-smile in response.

“Where…?” Anna began. Her voice faltered as she peered forward through windshield. “What on Earth is that?”

“A plane.” Jake figured her question was more rhetorical than that she really needed an answer, since they were close enough now to make out the registration number painted on the aircraft’s fuselage.

The plane―a Boeing 737-700 from Southwest Airlines―had come down hard, though it had survived the crash-landing surprisingly well. It was still in one piece and the pilots must have ditched whatever fuel had been on board before setting down, because there was no sign of fire. The pilot hadn’t landed the plane without some damage, though. At the end of its run, he’d lost control, and the aircraft had veered off from the blacktop, its nose wheel carving a furrow in the shoulder before it dipped into the ditch, leaving the plane sagging at an angle. The right wing had hit the power lines running along the road and been sheared off. The left wing, still whole, extended far out into the field. Jake whistled through his teeth in admiration at the skill it must’ve taken to set down the big jetliner on the narrow highway: the rear wheels had only a couple of feet of room to spare on either side.

Bringing the Ford to a halt, he shut off the engine, leaving the soft tick-tick of it cooling as the only sound. For the rest, the silence surrounding them was absolute: not even birds or crickets broke the quiet.

Jake slowly climbed out of the truck, and walked toward the plane. Anna used the unexpected stop to disappear into the underbrush. After she was finished, she came to stand beside him, her mouth open as she gaped up at the cockpit, fifteen feet above their heads. “What happened to it?” she whispered.

“The explosions must’ve taken ATC offline.” It took a conscious effort to not answer her in a similarly hushed tone and his voice sounded awfully loud in the stillness. Why had the pilot tried to land on this road, and not the interstate sixty or so miles further south? That would’ve been an easier landing. Perhaps they’d been trying to make for a local airport?

“ATC?” Anna still kept her voice low.

“Air Traffic Control.” Jake ambled closer to inspect the Boeing. The tire on the front landing gear had blown and pieces of rubber lay scattered across the road behind it.

“But why would they land here?”

“They must’ve been desperate. With air traffic control gone―.” Jake paused. “Imagine ten thousand planes in the sky, and nobody telling them where to go or where to put down.” Anna paled at the bleak picture he’d sketched her. Jake went on, “I’m guessin’ they were flying to Dallas and ran low on fuel.” He indicated the stretch of highway behind them. “The road runs straight for several miles. It’s a pretty good spot for an emergency landing.”

Assuming there weren’t any cars on the road―conceivably that was why the pilot had landed here: less chance of traffic than on the interstate and a far better option than trying to put such a big plane down in a field. To the naked eye, the surrounding countryside might give the impression it was flat, but Jake knew it would be littered with shallow gullies and rabbit holes and outcroppings of rock, hidden in the yellowed grass.

No, as absurd as it was to see a jetliner sit on a country highway, under the circumstances, it also made sense. If Jake had been faced with a similar choice, he would’ve likely made the same decision.

He was less impressed once it occurred to him the Boeing was blocking the entire road. It’d be impossible to drive around it. Maybe if they’d had an off-road vehicle, they could’ve tried going across the fields. With the old truck, that was a sure-fire way to break a vital part and strand them right here. No, they’d have to backtrack, find a different route.

Contemplating their situation, Jake continued to walk around the aircraft. Anna stuck close to his heels. The emergency doors over the wings were wide open and the inflatable slides had deployed from the front and aft doors, suggesting the passengers had disembarked the grounded aircraft safely.

Anna peered up at one of the slides, the doorway a gaping hole at its top. “Where is everyone?”

The deep quiet surrounding them told Jake that whoever had been in that plane had long since left the area. At least, that’s what he hoped. “Gone, I guess.” He calculated quickly: at maximum capacity, the Boeing would’ve carried a hundred fifty passengers, a two-men flight crew, and a handful of cabin crew.

“Gone where?”

“No idea.” Jake reached the left wing, the man-high engine blocking his way. “They probably waited for help for a while. Once they realized nobody was coming, they must’ve opted to move out on foot.” He mentally brought up the map of Texas, its paper twin still back in the Ford. “To Wichita Falls, I suppose.” He looked at the emergency door, an idea slowly forming in his mind. “Wait here,” he told Anna. “I’ll be right back.”

She made to hold on to his sleeve. “Where are you going?”

“I want to take a look inside.” Jake jerked his head at the aircraft. “See if there’s any sign of what happened to the passengers and crew. And there could be stuff in there we can use.” He wasn’t sure he’d find anything useful; it all depended on how thoroughly the passengers had ransacked the plane’s provisions before leaving. But it was worth a try.

Using the air intake for a foothold, he swung up onto the nearest engine. Its surface was smooth and round and slippery, and he slithered forward on his belly until he could grab hold of the wing flaps and drag himself onto the flat surface of the wing.

“I’m coming with you.” As Jake twisted around to sit up, he saw Anna was setting a foot in the inlet.

“No, you’d better stay out here. Keep watch.” He didn’t want her to come up when he didn’t know what he’d come across inside. The emergency slides suggested everyone had gotten out, but there was no guarantee he wouldn’t stumble upon dead bodies left behind. He didn’t want her to have to see that, if it came to it. “Holler if you see anyone approach.”

Anna hesitated, one foot on the air intake.

“I won’t be long,” Jake promised and started crawling over the wing toward the door. He ducked his head to climb in. Inside, he straightened and surveyed the cabin.

It was gloomy inside compared to the bright Texas sun, but the light that spilled through the windows showed him the cabin was a mess. Luggage had spilled from the overhead bins and the floor was littered with trash: crumpled newspapers, empty coffee cups, one high-heeled shoe. The air smelled faintly of scorched vinyl and melted rubber, and something unpleasant he couldn’t define.

He located the source of the smell soon enough, though, and was glad he’d asked Anna to wait outside. Even at a quick glance, forcing down his nausea, he counted several mangled bodies. And his initial estimate had been wrong: there’d been a fire after all. A brief one, that had been put out quickly and barely had done more than scorch the rear galley. But the fire wasn’t what had killed those people. The emergency slide on that side of the aircraft had failed, and the passengers had trampled each other to death in their panic to get away from the flames. It struck him as a nasty way to die.

Shuddering and not wanting to examine the dead people any more closely, Jake aimed for the cockpit. He located the logs and scanned them, discovering he’d been correct: the aircraft had been en route from Fort Lauderdale to Dallas. But they couldn’t tell him what he really wanted to know: what the hell had happened? What had the men flying this Boeing seen? Why had they landed in the middle of rural Texas?

He considered searching for the cockpit voice recorder, dismissing the plan as soon as it had formed. The voice recorder would be located near the rear of the plane and he had no desire to go near those corpses. Besides, chances were that the black box was one of the new digital systems he wouldn’t be able to access. And if it was an old-fashioned tape system, he didn’t have the equipment to play it, either. No, the data recorders were useless to him.

Abandoning the logs on the pilot’s seat, he left the cockpit and started searching through the cabin systematically, looking for anything they could use: flashlights, food, a med kit. He soon discovered the first aid kits were all gone, a sign that one person at least had used their brain during the evacuation. He went through the drawers and compartments in the front galley, collecting a few snacks and bottles of water that had been forgotten. Behind a locker, he discovered the survival equipment and uttered a small grunt of triumph. The kit was designed to be used if the aircraft ever had to ditch in the water, and it had to have been on board or the plane would never have been allowed to fly over the Gulf.

“Jake?” Anna’s voice drifted up while he was separating the detachable oars and the fishing gear from the rest of the survival set. “I think there’s a car coming.”

“How far off?” Jake called back. He quickly browsed through the rest of the supplies, separating out the flashlights and emergency rations.

“Not sure. Still a ways away.” There was another pause. “It’s coming on fast, though.”

Jake checked the flare gun from the kit, stashed it in his jeans at his back, and put the flares with the rest of his hoard. A flare gun wasn’t very useful as a weapon, but it’d serve in a pinch. He finished emptying the kit and stuffed everything he wanted to take with them back inside the box, snatching a couple of the thin blankets the airliner provided and adding the provisions he’d taken from the galley.

Anna was anxiously waiting for him near the wing by the time he slithered down to land neatly on his feet, dragging the box with him. The air outside the plane was hot and dry, but pleasantly fresh, and he inhaled a deep lungful.

“Where’s that car?” He shifted the heavy box in his arms.

“Back there. I think there are two.” Anna pointed toward the other end of the Boeing. The highway stretched out straight as far as they could see, until it merged with the horizon. She was right; Jake spotted two distinct reflections: the sun glinting off metal roofs. SUVs or pickups, he reckoned, coming at them at high speed, judging by the thin dust trail they were throwing up in their wake.

“We’d best get going.” He nudged Anna with an elbow.

“Shouldn’t we wait?” She raised a hand to shield her eyes as she squinted in the direction of the oncoming cars.

“No.” Jake trotted toward the Ford. “Come on.” He’d thought of waiting for the newcomers and rejected the idea even before he’d known there were two cars and not one. Anna jogged to catch up with him. While he put the box into the Ford’s rear bed, he explained, “We don’t know who they are, or what they want.”

“Do you think…,” Anna paused while she hoisted herself back into the passenger seat, “they’re the ones… who killed Freddy?”

“No. They can’t be that lucky.” Jake started the engine and put the car in gear. But even if he didn’t believe the people approaching were involved with Ravenwood—they could be perfectly innocent locals—he’d seen enough madness in the last few days to be mistrustful of strangers. “We’d best avoid contact with people until we get to Houston.”

“Okay.” Anna’s voice was small.

Working to reverse the car so they could go back the way they’d come, he nodded at the map on the dashboard. “Can you see where we should turn off?”

“Sure.” Grateful for something to do, Anna snatched map and unfolded it, studying it carefully, before telling him there should be a side road a mile further on that they could take.

Finding the turn-off exactly where she’d said it would be, Jake smiled to himself. Anna being able to read a map could be useful.

As he steered the Ford into the side road, he cast a final glance in the rear-view mirror. Of the two cars that had been coming up toward the plane, he saw no sign.

o0o

They stopped for a quick bite an hour later, once Jake was convinced they weren’t being followed. Nibbling on crackers and sipping juice from the stash Mrs Cramer had given them, they took the opportunity to stretch their legs. When they were ready to go on, the truck lurched off awkwardly, the pedals not responding smoothly to Jake’s touch. He muttered a curse under his breath while he fought to get the Ford back under control.

“This road should take us back to the highway.” Anna had been studying the map while they ate, and she held it up for him, indicating a squiggly white line and tapping a finger at where the squiggle connected with the thicker red line that signified the main road. “The turn-off should be coming right up.”

Jake glanced at the map. “I’m thinking we shouldn’t use the highway.”

“Why not?” Anna dropped the map in her lap. “It’s a lot faster.”

“It’s also less safe.” Jake twisted the wheel to avoid a muddy pothole. It had rained overnight; where the sun hadn’t yet burned off the moisture, the dirt road was slick and tricky. From the corner of his eye, Jake saw Anna’s brows were drawn down in puzzlement. “Those cars we saw,” he explained. “We don’t know who they were, or what they wanted.”

“Jake!” Anna uttered a laugh. “They could’ve been people trying to go somewhere. Like us.”

“True, they could be.” Jake grimaced ruefully. They hadn’t seen anyone in several hours, and Anna had clearly pushed away her fears about Ravenwood. Which in itself wasn’t a bad thing, but―. “Or maybe not.” He sensed more than saw Anna’s frustrated scowl. “Listen, it’s―.” He took one hand off the wheel to gesture helplessly with it, wishing he could explain it better. “It’s just a feeling. But it’s a feeling I learned to take notice of, when I was in Iraq.” Some would call it superstitious, but that instinct had been honed over months driving Route Irish and he’d learned to listen to it, no matter what the situation looked like on the surface. The same instinct, which told him they should avoid the highways and those using them, had made him eager to hurry from the plane crash as soon as Anna had announced she’d spotted cars coming―although, rationally, he knew the odds were she was right, and those people had been regular travelers. Perhaps even officials coming to deal with the plane. “Kept me alive over there.”

For a long minute, Anna didn’t speak. Then she said, “I thought Freddy kept you alive over there.”

Jake flinched, both at her words and the unexpected recrimination in her tone. He risked a second quick glance over, unsure what had made her bring Freddy up. She was staring straight ahead, lips pressed tight.

He cleared his throat and admitted softly, “That, too.” Freddy had done much better by him than he had done by his friend. He should’ve―.

“I’m sorry.” Anna reached out and rested her hand on his wrist, her fingers warm on his skin. “You’re right. We don’t know who those people were, or what they wanted. And I shouldn’t have said that. It’s not your fault Freddy’s dead. Or… or any of this.”

Yeah, well… Jake met her eyes briefly, noticing they glimmered with unshed tears. He shrugged uncomfortably. “It’s okay.”

Anna dabbed at her eyes before dropping her hands back in her lap. “I’m―.”

“―frustrated?” Jake supplied, mouth twitching in a lopsided smile.

She sniffled back a half-sob, half-choked laughter. “And tired, and… and scared.”

Jake huffed a humorless laugh. He eased up on the gas in preparation for the next curve. “I know none of this―,” he steered into the curve and brought the car straight before motioning vaguely to indicate their situation, “―makes sense. But I promise we’ll get to Houston, okay? Will you trust me on this? Please?”

He watched her bite her lip for a second before she lowered her head, a touch unwillingly but apparently accepting the promise. Jake hoped it was one he’d be able to keep, and that the itchy feeling that had his skin crawling with misgivings would prove unfounded.

As he failed to avoid a slippery rut, the engine whined in protest. He shifted to a lower gear, wishing he’d been able to get them a better car. With a pang of sadness, he thought of his trusty Roadrunner, permitting himself a few minutes in which he relived the memory of his hands curling gently around her steering wheel and how well she’d handled on unreliable roads. He heaved an inward sigh: the car had probably gone up in smoke with the rest of Denver, if the rumors were true. If he’d gone to Jericho, like he’d planned, if he hadn’t gone with Anna, he would’ve―. He blocked that train of thought before he could follow it to the end, ashamed. How could he mourn the loss of his car when hundreds of thousands of people, possibly millions, had died?

It had been a damned fine car, though, a lot nicer than the rust bucket he was currently coaxing to give him another mile.

Doesn’t matter, he told himself. Even if he’d been driving the Roadrunner, he wouldn’t have dared go any faster than in the old Ford. The tracks weren’t very different from the ones he’d been navigating half his life, but he was painfully aware he didn’t know these roads at all. Surprises could lie in wait behind every curve, and if the ancient truck broke down…?

Knock on wood. He chuckled quietly: best not think of such things, or he’d jinx it.

They drove on in silence for a while, Jake casting the occasional look sideways at Anna. She was gazing out at the arid landscape passing by, lost in thought. She hadn’t said much since their brief argument, and Jake hoped she wasn’t too upset; he honestly did understand—and shared—her desire to get to Houston as quickly as they could. She’d lost her fiancé already, and she must be frantic over her parents’ fate.

At least they hadn’t encountered any more wrecks or dead bodies since they’d left the highway. But despite the absence of such hindrances, they didn’t make great progress. Late afternoon, Jake reckoned they’d gone a little over a hundred miles altogether―less than a quarter of the distance they had to go.

Anna cleared her throat, startling Jake from glum introspective. “Jake? Can you stop the car? I gotta―.”

“Again?” The word spilled from Jake’s lips before he could catch himself. It wasn’t the first time she’d asked him to stop for a bathroom break. Nor was it the second.

Anna blushed. “I’m sorry, it’s―.” She pursed her lips together. “I am pregnant, you know.”

Jake regretted his objection instantly. He hadn’t exactly forgotten about the baby, but he’d also not fully realized the consequences of traveling long distances while pregnant. Thinking back, she’d hurried toward the ladies’ restroom every time the bus made a stop, too. It had simply been less remarkable to him at the time, since he hadn’t had to pull over what felt like every fifteen minutes.

“I’m sorry.” He attempted a conciliatory half-smile as he shifted down the gears, considering pulling over onto the shoulder and deciding against it. The side of the road looked soft, and he didn’t want to get to stuck in the dirt. They’d be safe enough in the middle of the track; it was highly unlikely they were going to be in anyone’s way in the short period it would take Anna to do her business.

“Maybe I should drink less,” she suggested, reaching for the door handle.

“What?” It took a second to sink in. “No, please, don’t do that.” It might avoid the issue in the short run, but it was important they keep their fluids up, especially in the arid Texas air. “It’s no problem.”

“Okay.” Anna got out and ducked her head in. “I’ll be right back.” Jake watched her until she’d gone out of sight behind a patch of low brush, leaves stained gray with road dust. He let the engine idle, thrumming his fingers on the wheel and gazing out the front window as he waited. It was getting late, and the sun was a golden ball slowly sliding toward the western horizon. We should start looking for a place to spend the night soon.

He reckoned finding a motel in this part of Texas would mean going back to the highway, despite his misgivings about taking the bigger roads.

Catching movement in the rear view mirror, he shifted his focus, and saw Anna come clumping back out of the field. She trudged along the dirt track toward the car, stopping at the rear of the truck. She looked down at something that had drawn her attention.

“Jake?” Raising her head, she called his name. “I think you should see this.”

Jake shut off the engine and hopped from the cab, walking around to join her. She pointed at the right rear tire. “We have a flat.”

“Dammit.” It took Jake a single glance to confirm Anna was right: the tire was considerably flatter than its mate on the left. That would explain why the truck had gradually started resisting the steering wheel. If it’d been the Roadrunner, he’d have noticed as soon as the problem started… He shook it off: at least the tire hadn’t blown and sent them spinning.

“Guess we should get the spare on, huh?” Anna hugged herself. With the sun getting lower on the horizon, the temperature was dropping rapidly, reminding Jake it was late September. The nights would be as cool as the days were hot.

“Guess so.” They certainly shouldn’t continue to drive with the flat tire. Not if we want to make it to Houston in this piece of crap. He resisted the temptation to kick at the offending wheel, and instead hoisted himself up into the truck bed to get the spare. Getting a good look at the thing, he swore a quiet oath. He’d registered that there was a spare was in the back before he bought the Ford, but on closer inspection, he had to wonder if it had ever been removed since the truck had come off the assembly line decades ago.

He thumped his knuckles on the dust-covered rubber experimentally and found it firmer than he’d expected by looks alone. Should he chance them making the nearest town on the punctured tire, running the risk of ruining the rim? Or put on the spare, and risk that blowing on the first rock or pothole they encountered?

He weighed his choices. Whatever had caused the puncture, the hole had to be tiny. If they couldn’t find a garage that could replace the bad tire with a new one, they might be able to repair the punctured one sufficiently to allow them to reach Houston. But if he carried on driving on it, he certainly ruin it beyond any chance of repair.

Decision made, he started in on the wingnut that held the spare in place. To his surprise and delight, it wasn’t rusted as tightly as he’d feared, and he soon had the spare taken down. A little further digging through the truck’s innards and he’d located the jack and wrench. He expelled a breath, thinking that he’d judged the truck too harshly: she came better equipped than he’d have expected from appearances.

Jumping from the bed, he checked the cab to verify he’d put on the hand brake, before he went in search of a flat rock to put up under one of the front wheels for extra security. Walking back to the flat tire, he slid the wrench over the first nut and tried to loosen it. He quickly discovered that years of rust and dirt had glued them on. Muscles corded in his arms as he tried to get the various screws to give; even cautiously putting his foot on the wrench and trying to use his whole body weight didn’t help. None of them budged even a fraction.

“Can I help?”

Jake puffed out an exasperated breath and straightened. He gave Anna a considering once-over. She must’ve misread him, because she stiffened and glared back, adding, “Hey, I’m pregnant, not an invalid. I―.”

“Whoa!” Jake let out a laugh and took a step to the side to give her room. Anna’s ire deflated and she gave him a wry shrug. Joining him at the wheel, she put her hands beside his on the wrench. In the end, the thick rust couldn’t stand up to their combined strength, and after a few seconds of jiggling and straining, the first screw rotated a quarter of an inch with a squeak of protest. Anna let out a triumphant cry, and Jake grinned at her while fitting the wrench over the next screw.

With the screws loosened, the rest of the job was easy: Jake jacked the truck up, replaced the tire with the spare, and tightened the screws again. As they drove on, Jake was even more cautious than before, doing his best to avoid as many of holes and half-hidden rocks as he could.

An hour later, they came upon a wooden sign at a crossroads, informing them the town of Redfield was two miles to the east. East was entirely the wrong direction, but Jake turned onto the track anyway. Up ahead, on the horizon, he could see a church steeple, burning orange in the setting sun. A town with its own church was likely to also have a garage and, with luck, it’d even offer a motel, or an inn. They could fix up their tire, get themselves a good night’s sleep and a decent meal, and be on the road bright and early the next morning.

The final five hundred yards of road as they rolled into Redfield was paved, the blacktop cracked and uneven. The road widened, first to a two-lane and then further, providing room for parking spaces. But other than a lone, dented pickup, the place seemed abandoned, the spaces empty. Jake didn’t see a soul, either, though he sensed wary eyes following them from behind curtains and shuttered windows.

Two guys, dressed in jeans and checkered shirts, lounged on the church steps, carrying rifles, the first signs Redfield wasn’t as deserted as it had initially looked. They rose to their feet, staring darkly as Jake drove by, and he chewed on his cheek thoughtfully. Maybe coming in to Redfield hadn’t been such a smart idea after all. He considered about stepping on the gas and continuing on until they came across the next track south. Seeing the red-and-white sign for a Conoco service station made him rethink: they needed to get that damned tire fixed and filled with air, and, if at all possible, the tank topped off with gas. The indicator on the dash was broken and he didn’t think they were at risk of running on empty any time soon, but God knows how long it’d be until the next gas station.

Pretending to ignore the two rednecks at the church, he turned into the service station, bringing the truck to a halt at the pumps. As he reached for his door, he told Anna, “Stay inside, okay.”

She craned her neck so she could peer into the rear view mirror. In its reflection, they could see the two men sauntering up across the road toward the service station. “Hurry.”

Not needing to be told twice, Jake dropped from the driver’s seat and checked the flare gun, before lodging it in his belt at his back. He wished it was a real gun. Huffing a wry laugh at his own expense―if wishes were horses…―he trotted around the truck. He got into the bed and loosened the fastenings that had held the flat tire secured in the spare’s place.

“Pump’s closed.” Glancing over his shoulder, Jake saw the two guys had reached them. One was cradling his shotgun in his arms, the other had planted the stock in the palm of one hand, the muzzle resting against his shoulder.

Jake quirked an eyebrow at them; despite the late hour, there was a light on in the small workshop―from the dim glow, he suspected it was a Coleman lamp―and he could see someone moving around inside.

The man who’d spoken raised his free hand to push his baseball cap further to the back of his head. “For out-of-towners, anyways.” He spat in the dirt.

“That’s not very neighborly, is it?” The words tumbled from Jake’s lips before he could bite them back. Both men stiffened visibly, and shifted their grip on their weapons. Jake kicked himself mentally. Him and his big mouth. “Okay, okay.” He stood up straight, legs apart for balance, holding out both palms. He hoped his shirt hid the gun at his back sufficiently they hadn’t noticed it. “I get it: you take care of your own.” In a way, he did understand; with the situation being as it was, nobody could predict how long they’d have to make do with what they had until new supplies could be brought in. And until power was restored, they’d want gas for their generators as well as their trucks.

The men didn’t move. Bending down, Jake dragged the damaged tire over, balancing it on its side on the edge of the truck bed and gesturing with his free hand at the shop. “I got a flat I want to fix. Sooner it gets done, sooner we’ll be going.” His hopes for finding a place to stay the night in Redfield had already evaporated; he doubted they’d receive any warmer welcome at a local motel or inn.

The two men exchanged a look. The guy with the baseball cap, who seemed to be in charge, jerked his head toward the workshop, where an elderly mechanic was now peering out at them. “Make it quick, then.”

While the first man was giving Jake the okay to get the tire fixed, his companion had started walking around the truck and was peering inside. Jake tried to keep him in sight without being too obvious; he didn’t want to leave Anna alone out here with these two. But other than asking her to accompany him to the workshop, he didn’t have a choice—and the first guy was gesturing impatiently with his rifle for Jake to take the tire over to the mechanic. With a last, mistrustful glance backward, Jake started rolling it over the ground toward the workshop.

“Got a flat, huh?” the mechanic stated the obvious, chuckling and shaking his head. “Well, we’ll see what we can do ’bout it.”

Jake passed the tire over to the mechanic.

“Where you and the missus headed?” The leader of the two rednecks had followed Jake into the shop.

“Houston.” He squinted across the man’s shoulder, noticing with quiet relief that the second guy had finished his inspection of the truck and had simply taken up guard near the rear, leaning one elbow on the side of the truck bed he stared at them. Thankfully, he appeared not to be interesting in bothering Anna.

“Not Dallas?”

Jake pulled his attention back to the first man. “No.”

“Good.” The man spat into the dirt again. “Dallas’s gone.”

There was nothing Jake could say to that.

o0o

Chapter 5

Redfield was just an unpleasant memory by the time the sun had dipped fully below the horizon and true night began falling around them. Anna cleared her throat, breaking the silence in the car and startling Jake from scanning the surrounding fields for a decent camping spot. “You wanna drive through the night?” Clearly her thoughts were running in the same direction as his.

“Not on these roads.” The unpaved backroads, unfamiliar to him and not in very good shape, proved plenty challenging in daylight. He wasn’t going to chance getting another flat or hitting something in the darkness.

“Thought so.” Anna shifted in her seat. During the day, the old bench had grown even lumpier under them. “And I suppose finding a motel is out?” From her tone, she’d already figured out the answer.

Jake swept her a quick glance to confirm his impression. The corners of her mouth were turned up wryly in the deepening gloom. “Yes.”

She met his gaze. “So we sleep in the car?”

“‘Fraid so.” He again peered forward, still trying to figure out a good place to stop. “Unless you have a better idea?”

“Not really.” Anna puffed out air. “I don’t mind. In the summer, my sisters and I used to take my car and go to the beach on weekends. We’d watch the sun go down, hang out with the surfer boys, and spent the night in the car, huddled under a blanket.” She laughed. “We always told my dad we were staying at a friend’s house. If he’d ever found out―.”

Jake snuck another quick look at her. Freddy had once or twice mentioned that Anna had sisters, but it struck him how little he knew her, beyond that she was his best friend’s girlfriend. Fiancée: Freddy had been so proud and happy, making her show off the ring he hadn’t been able to afford.

“I never figured you for such a wild child,” he admitted. She’d always come across to him as the practical and responsible one, the girl who kept Freddy grounded whenever he was embarking on his flights of fancy or heading for the latest crazy get-rich-quick scheme.

She let out a laugh. “I was. In fact, that’s how I met Freddy.” She was silent for so long that Jake didn’t expect her to say anything else, until she went on, “He and a couple of his friends saved our butts one day, when these guys wouldn’t leave us alone.”

Jake made a non-committal noise, grinning inwardly; he could imagine how Freddy might’ve handled the matter.

“Anyway…,” Anna’s voice grew subdued, “I can deal with sleeping in the car if I have to.”

Jake briefly let go of the wheel to touch her knee in silent sympathy. The change in her tone told him she was thinking about Freddy again. And Freddy was dead; nothing he said would change that.

Instead, he concentrated on finding a place where they could camp without being too exposed. The stars were already coming out when the beam of the headlamps revealed a grove of cottonwoods. “There,” he pointed, as he slowed the truck. “Those trees will shield us from view.”

He maneuvered the truck cautiously behind the cottonwoods’ trunks, mindful of the uneven ground. Sitting in the cab, they ate a pitiful supper of stale airplane sandwiches with wilted lettuce, and shared a bag of M&Ms for dessert. After finishing the last chocolate pellet, Jake decided they should swap out the spare tire for the repaired one. If he did it tonight, it’d save them time in the morning.

It was full dark by then and the thin moon provided little light. Anna held the flashlight while Jake worked. The bolts were far less trouble than before, and it didn’t take him long to remove the spare and putting the patched-up one back on.

“Those guys weren’t very welcoming, were they?” Anna commented idly.

Jake paused in tightening a bolt and glanced up at her. “No,” he agreed. It was why he hadn’t dared put on the patched tire as soon as it was fixed: the Redfielders might not have done them real harm, but he hadn’t wanted to suffer their hostility any longer than necessary. They’d been afraid and armed, which was a dangerous combination at the best of times. “They wanted to protect their town,” he added, giving the bolt a last twist. Why did he bother making excuses for the unfriendly treatment? “I guess people do in a crisis.”

“Not everyone. Mrs Cramer wasn’t like that.” Anna shifted to his other side so she could more accurately aim the flashlight at the next bolt. “Neither are you.”

Her words startled Jake into dropping the bolt. He scrabbled to snatch it up before it disappeared into the grassy blackness underneath the car. He swallowed a “Dammit,” and peered up at her, his hand tight around the rescued bolt. “What?”

He couldn’t make out her expression beyond the glare of the flashlight, but he could tell she was raising her shoulders from the way the beam danced.

“I know you’d rather have gone home than come with me.” She paused. “What was the name of that town?”

He bent back toward the wheel to replace the last bolt. “Jericho.” It came out a tad more curtly than he’d planned, as a sudden wave of homesickness surged through him: he wished he had even half an idea of what was going on there. Dad will have everything under control, he assured himself. Nothing ever seemed to faze his father, so Jericho was no doubt doing fine despite the chaos that had swept over the rest of the country.

“And I made a promise,” he continued as he lowered the jack slowly until the car rested firmly on all four wheels. “To Freddy. And to you. I plan to keep those promises.” Packing the jack and wrench away, he suggested quietly, changing the subject, “We should get some sleep.”

Anna looked as if she wanted to say more. Something in his expression stopped her. She switched off the flashlight and crawled into the cab without speaking. Jake waited for his vision to adjust to the absence of the light, before unfolding one of the blankets from the plane and spreading it out in the back of the truck.

The cab door reopened and Anna stuck her head out. “What’re you doing?”

“Making myself a bed.” He hopped up the truck bed and draped a corner of the blanket over the spare tire; it’d make for a hard pillow, but…

“Jake…” Anna uttered an amused little laugh. “Don’t be stupid. There’s plenty of room in the cab.”

Jake paused from arranging the blanket, twisting on his heel until he faced her. He quirked up the corner of his mouth. “No, there isn’t.”

“Okay.” She dipped her head in acknowledgment, her lips twitching into a smile. “You’re right, not plenty. But enough.” Her expression grew earnest. “It’s gonna get cold,” she reminded him. “And it rained last night.”

Jake fingered the blanket spread out on the steel floor. Her offer was tempting and she was right on both counts. In the cab, he’d be protected from the elements. “But―,” he offered a final token protest.

“Come on.” Her teeth flashed in the moonlight. “I promise I won’t snore.”

With a laugh of his own, Jake admitted defeat and jumped down from the back.

He regretted his decision less than five minutes later. The two of them were scrambling around on the uneven seat bench, trying to avoid loose springs digging painfully into various parts of their anatomy. Anna’s elbow jabbed into his stomach. “Sorry,” she muttered. “Just―.”

At last, they were as comfortable as they could get in the cramped confines of the cab. Anna’s body heat slowly seeped into Jake where she lay against him and he suspected he’d be grateful for it before morning came. The chill of night was already trying to creep in under the blankets and he tugged them tighter. Though neither the thin airliner blankets or the ratty old one from the motel in Vernon would provide much insulation from the cold.

“Oh! Did you see it?” Anna pointed at the starry sky visible through the windshield. “A falling star.”

Jake squinted out into the dark, clear sky. The scraps of cloud cover were fuzzy streaks in the moonlight. Beyond, the faint glow of the Milky Way stretched across the expanse. He figured that the star Anna had seen―or rather, the meteor―had already burned itself out, because no matter how hard he searched, he didn’t see any lights streaking across the sky—and that included the blinking lights of aircraft that were usually visible somewhere or other at any given time.

The realization that there were no planes flying, and its implications, brought a sour taste to his mouth, and he forced the thought away. “Now you can make a wish,” he pointed out.

Anna was silent for a minute. “I wouldn’t know where to start,” she finally admitted. “Everything’s so…,” He sensed her roll a shoulder, “so messed up.”

He snorted a wry laugh in sympathy. Less than a week ago, his biggest problem had been where to get the money to pay his rent. The problems he’d had then seemed so insignificant now.

They lapsed back into silence. Jake’s right arm started cramping up from the awkward position he was holding it in, but he didn’t know where else to put it. The ache grew steadily worse, until he caved and let his hand rest lightly on Anna’s hip. She didn’t object, and Jake gradually relaxed.

He thought she’d already fallen asleep when she spoke again, her voice a soft whisper. “We were planning to buy out Gary. Freddy and I.”

“Gary?” Jake shifted to ease the weight on his left hip.

“Uh-huh. He owns the beach club.” She clutched the blanket tighter around her. “I―I think that’s why Freddy got involved with those people. To get the money.” She sniffled, and Jake could tell from the sound of her voice that she was crying. “He never was very patient.”

“I’m sorry.” Jake raised his hand, intending to brush away the tears he could see glistening on her cheek but stopping short, unsure how she’d react. A lump was stuck in his own throat, and he cleared it before repeating, “I’m so sorry.”

Anna didn’t answer.

o0o

Jake woke chilled and sore, with a soft, warm body nestled against his chest, and a faint scent of shampoo in his nose. Where was he? It took him a confused second or two to―. Hissing, he yanked his arms away from Anna as if she was on fire.

His face flushed with shame. During the night, he must’ve drawn her closer to him, until they’d ended up snuggled together. He swallowed hard; he seriously doubted this was what Freddy had meant when he’d asked Jake to take care of Anna.

Clamping down on the niggling voice that wanted to point out it had been nice, Jake became aware his right leg had gone numb under Anna’s weight, and also that he badly needed to pee. Anna was fast asleep, and he struggled to shift out from under her without waking her. The attempt was doomed to failure, of course: as soon as he moved, she mumbled incoherently and her eyes fluttered open, peering up at him sleepily.

“Um, morning.” Jake offered her a lopsided smile.

Anna blinked rapidly, and Jake could tell the exact instant that she became aware of the position they were in. She gasped out a startled, “Oh!” and blushed as she pushed up and away from him, scooting over to one side of the bench. “Sorry.” She ran a hand through her hair, fingers working to get the tangles out and hid her confusion by rummaging through her purse for a comb.

“‘s Kay.” Jake was glad she hadn’t woken before he had; if she knew where his hands had been five minutes ago… Wanting to give her―and himself―time to regain their composure, he clambered stiffly from the truck. He stretched cramped muscles, wincing as his spine popped. The sun was barely peeping over the eastern horizon, and the morning air was cold enough to bring him fully awake. He walked deeper into the grove and relieved himself. Returning to the truck, he headed around to the back check on the fixed-up tire. He was pleased to see the repairs had held during the night. For all the town’s hostility, Redfield’s mechanic had done a good job.

They breakfasted on emergency ratings and water from the plane, finishing off with the last of the apples they’d brought from Vernon. Anna buried the cores with care in the shade among the tree roots.

“Someday they could grow into apple trees.” She wiped her fingers on her jeans and gave an embarrassed shrug at the amused quirk on Jake’s lips. She must have gotten the story of Johnny Appleseed as a kid as well.

They were on the road a minute later.

As on the previous day, they didn’t see any people. In fact, it was as if everyone had simply left: the ranches close to the road gave every impression they’d been abandoned: doors and windows closed tight, curtains drawn. They met no other traffic, either, though once in a while they spotted a faint dust plume on the horizon: evidence another vehicle was driving along the unpaved backroads.

Around mid-morning, they drove by a small farmhouse set right next to the track. It was a rundown building, with a clutter of ramshackle barns and sheds surrounding it, paint peeling from the clapboard. A gaggle of children were playing in the yard. As soon as the Ford trundled into sight, the kids dropped their toys, dashed for the house and slammed the door shut behind them.

“Hello and good day to you, too,” Anna muttered, using sarcasm to hide her concern as she turned her head to look at the toys lying forgotten in the yard.

“They’re afraid.” Jake decided not to tell her about the gun barrel tip peeking out from one of the upstairs windows or the way it tracked their progress until the farm was out of sight in the rear view mirror.

When the sun was close to being as high as it would get, Jake pulled over for a lunch break. While he munched on one of the dry crackers, he got out the map. They’d not long before passed under I-20, which headed east to Dallas, and he wanted to plot out the rest of their journey that lay ahead. He spread the map out on the flat surface of the truck bed, and leaned over it, holding it flat against the warm wind blowing across the flat fields.

“Where are we?” Anna asked, sidling up beside him.

“Here.” Jake tapped a location several miles to the southeast of Abilene.

“Oh.” It was all she said, letting her silence speak as loudly as any words could have: we didn’t get very far.

He had to agree with her: with all the stumbling blocks fate kept throwing in their path—downed airplanes, flat tires, being forced on to the backroads— they were making poor progress. At their current pace, it’d take three or four days to reach Houston―a journey, which under normal circumstances should have taken no more than a day.

And they both knew her parents would be frantic to hear from her. She’d attempted to call home from a pay phone in Vernon before they left, and Jake had tried the phone at the garage in Redfield while the mechanic had been repairing their tire. Both times, the lines had been dead.

“Perhaps we should use the highway after all,” he muttered, half to himself and half to Anna. He traced a line on the map with his finger: if they took a left at the next intersection, they should reach the highway in an hour or so.

“I thought you said it’s not safe?”

“It isn’t.” Jake refolded the map. “Neither is running out of food or gas in these parts.” He vaguely waved the map to point out the flat land surrounding them. They weren’t at risk of running out of either, not yet; they had the rations he gotten from the plane and there was the spare can of gas in the back of the truck that he hadn’t had to get out yet. But if the journey did take three days or longer, it would be a different matter. So it was a toss-up between increased speed or continued security.

“Think I should drive for a while?”

Jake tilted his head to look at Anna. Truth be told, wrestling the ancient truck for hours on end was tiring. Once they were back on the highway, she could maybe―but she hadn’t sounded very eager. More like she thought she was obliged to offer. And Jake was finally starting to learn the old car’s idiosyncrasies.

“No, that’s alright. I’m okay.” He grinned at her as he climbed back into the cab. “Used to drive trucks for a living, remember?”

She smiled back faintly and didn’t object as he started the engine and put the truck in gear. As they pulled away, he thought he detected a touch of relief in her expression.

o0o

They did indeed make faster progress once they got to the highway. Jake was just beginning to think they would reach Houston in a day or two when his hopes were dashed by the sight of another bad car crash ahead. A large trailer truck had lost control and scissored, its wheels leaving lengthy skid marks of burned rubber on the asphalt. It was blocking the entire road, which wasn’t very wide to begin with. Jake reluctantly let up off the gas.

Anna started awake as the Ford slowed. With nothing to do but stare at the landscape, and not much to say, she’d been dozing. “Crap,” she muttered as she saw the blockade. Wiping a palm over her face, she leaned forward for a better view of the trailer. “Do we have to go back?”

“Don’t think so.” Jake surveyed the scene and did a few mental calculations. “We should be able to squeeze by.” It would be a tight fit, but if he steered onto the shoulder, they could make it. He just wasn’t entirely convinced that he should try. The truck had left such a neat little gap… Shaking off his unease, he maneuvered the car toward the narrow opening. Turning back would add a few dozen miles at least to their journey and he’d rather not do that unless he absolutely had to. Certainly not over a prickling sensation in his neck based on nothing concrete.

But as soon as he’d navigated the Ford into the gap, and there was no other way out except forward, he discovered he should have listened to his instincts.

“Jake!” Anna’s fear-filled voice ripped his attention away from keeping the pickup out of the ditch that ran dangerously close to the truck’s left. He cursed silently. Three guys had materialized in the road up ahead, aiming handguns at them. The mirror showed him a glimpse of a pair of men walking up from the rear, carrying shotguns. Dammit! They’d been hiding in the tall grass in the fields or behind the huge wheels of the trailer.

“Stop the car!” One of the men in front―the gang’s leader―shouted, gesturing with his gun to underscore his order.

Jake’s foot inched up off the gas, hesitantly obeying the order. What could he do against four or five guns? All he had was a damned flare gun, and, besides, that was locked in the glove compartment.

At the same time, he took note that the leader was eying the old Ford with a disapproving scowl, and the two men on either side were leering at Anna. If he did as he was told, getting robbed of their possessions would be the least of their problems.

Keeping his heel hovering lightly on the gas pedal, he let the car roll on slowly. Drawing his left leg up to hold the wheel steady with his knee, he raised his hands as a sign of submission, nodding at the leader, indicating he’d comply. At the same time, he tracked the truck’s progress out of the corner of his eye. They were almost past the trailer. He prayed the car had enough momentum to get through the gap.

“I said, stop the goddamn car!” The leader straightened his arm and aimed his weapon directly at Jake’s head.

“Jake…?” Anna whispered a warning.

Jake swallowed. If he’d misjudged the distance… If he’d gotten it wrong… Now…!

“Hold on!” he shouted at Anna as he stomped the gas pedal down as far as it would go, for an instant wondering whether he’d kick right through the rusty floor of the old truck. The Ford’s engine screeched in protest and, for an eternal heartbeat, threatened to stall and die. Please, God…

Then the engine caught and the pickup sprang forward. Jake grappled with the steering wheel as the left tires bucked on the soft dirt of the shoulder, before the tires got a firm grip on the asphalt and the car picked up speed, barreling toward the gang’s leader. Barely in time, the man dove out of the way, too slow or too surprised to fire his gun. Jake caught a glimpse of open-mouthed astonishment on the faces of the other men. He reckoned they hadn’t had many opportunities to practice their skill at highway robbery yet.

Then the Ford was past them and the robbers were falling away in the rear-view mirror. Jake kept the accelerator to the floor, praying the truck’s engine wouldn’t give out.

Something zinged against the Ford’s cab. “Get down!” Jake shouted at Anna, waving frantically for her to duck as low as she could.

“What was that?” she yelped. “Are they shooting at us?”

“Yes.” Jake instinctively ducked his head between his shoulders.

A second shot went wide, and Jake tightened his grip on the steering wheel as they raced along the empty highway.

“Jake?” In spite of Jake telling her to stay down, Anna was on her knees on the seat, twisted around and with her head raised just enough to peer over the top of the bench and out the back window.

“I see them.” A quick glance at the rear view mirror had showed Jake that the robbers had jumped into a pickup of their own and were giving chase. The car―a black monster sporting lots of chrome and oversized tires—must’ve been parked behind the trailer. “Dammit.” The old, trundling Ford would be no match for a modern truck, especially not on a road as straight as this.

Knowing how useless it was, he nevertheless tried to push the gas pedal further to the floor But the Ford had nothing left to give, and the black pickup was closing fast. Jake desperately tried to devise a plan.

The flare gun!

“Anna! Get the gun.”

Anna wriggled around and delved in the glove box for the flare gun. She shoved the bright orange weapon into Jake’s outstretched hand. He checked quickly that it was loaded with a flare.

“Take the wheel.” Jake twisted in his seat until he could lean out the side window for a clean shot. Anna grabbed for the steering wheel, but the car careened wildly as it wrenched itself out of her control. One wheel hit the shoulder, throwing up dirt and clots of yellow grass. Anna cried out in fear. Then they bounced out of the dirt and back onto the road.

Jake jerked back, nearly losing the gun, but managing to drop it in his lap at the last second. He tightened both hands around the wheel and wheezed out a long breath as the car steadied. Another quick glance in the mirror told him the near-accident had cost them precious time and the black truck was looming ever closer.

“Jake, give me the gun.”

“What?” Jake darted Anna a startled glance, before focusing his gaze on the mirror again. The black pickup was growing bigger with each second.

“The gun. Please. You can’t shoot and drive at the same time.”

She was right. He’d discovered that the hard way. “Do you know―?”

“Yes.” She sounded sure of herself. “My dad taught me.”

He didn’t have to think twice: he gave her the gun. “It’s a single shot, so you have one chance.”

“Alright.” She climbed onto her knees again, twisting her upper body out of the window. A second bullet struck the truck, clanging against the metal and Jake winced. If one of those shots hit Anna―.

From his peripheral vision, he saw her try to take aim, but the road was rough and, with their current breakneck speed, they felt every bump and pothole. The gun was bouncing in her grip and she couldn’t keep it steady. She pulled back inside, blowing out a frustrated puff of air. She scrubbed a hand across her face. “You’ve got to stop the car.”

“What?” Jake blurted again.

“I can hit them. I know I can. But not while we’re driving.”

“Anna…” If they stopped and she missed, they’d never get another chance to make their escape.

“Please, Jake. Stop the car.”

He hesitated only a moment longer. Risking another peek in the mirror, he saw the other truck had gained even more distance on them. “Okay. Okay!” It was all or nothing. “Be ready,” he warned her.

Anna braced herself with one hand on the door handle, the other holding the flare gun in a firm grip. “Do it.”

Jake hit the brakes as hard as he could, pumping them to avoid locking up and sending them into a spin. The tires squealed, and he prayed none of them would blow.

As soon as they came to a stop, Anna tumbled out of the door. She took up position in the middle of the road proving she hadn’t been lying: her dad had taught her well. He hoped her aim would be as good as her firing stance.

Another bullet zipped past, and he saw her flinch. God, she was horribly exposed, such easy target for those bastards as she stood out there on the road. Get the hell on with it! he wanted to shout.

It took forever for Anna to pull the trigger. At last, the gun made a popping noise. Anna was back in the car almost before the flare slammed into the other truck and Jake had them moving already by the time it exploded in a flash of bright light.

“Dear Lord…” Anna was gaping out of the back window. Jake flicked his eyes up to the mirror, and couldn’t help let out a low whistle of appreciation for her skill: she’d hit the car smack in its monstrous grill and the engine had caught fire from the flare’s explosion: there was a second bang that Jake could hear even at this distance, and a gout of flame shot out from underneath the hood.

“Wow…” he breathed, focusing on where he was going and on getting away from the scene as fast as possible. “Good job.”

Anna didn’t acknowledge him and Jake risked a glance in her direction. She’d gone ashen and was holding on to the flare gun so tightly that her knuckles were white. “Anna?”

She didn’t react to him at all. Jake clenched his jaw, and as soon as he was reasonably convinced their pursuers had given up the chase, he pulled over. “Anna?” Reaching out, he closed his hands over hers, unbending her fingers from the gun so he could take it from her. She was shaking. To be honest, his own hands weren’t entirely steady, either. “Hey,” he tried again.

“I―I got it…,” she stammered. “Those men…” She swallowed visibly. “I think I k―k—killed―.”

“No, please don’t say that.” Jake hated that she’d been the one who’d had to take the shot. By rights, it should’ve been him. Wouldn’t’ve been the first time, either.

He put the gun back in the dash and locked it. He took her hands again, holding them between his. They were cold to the touch. “Whatever happened to them, they brought this on themselves,” he reminded her. “Not you. Understand?”

How often had he heard the same excuses after bystanders had gotten killed in Iraq? More times than he could count. This time, at least, it was true.

Anna slowly turned toward him, her eyes swimming with unshed tears, her breathing unsteady.

“It wasn’t you.” Jake reached out with one hand to cup her cheek, dipping his head so he could more easily catch and hold her gaze. “You did great. You saved our lives.” A violent shudder ran through her, and he drew her closer, wrapping an arm around her until she stopped trembling. Once she was calmer, he reluctantly let go, put the car in gear and drove on at a normal pace.

Though he kept one eye on the rear view mirror, there was no further sign of pursuit. To be honest, he wasn’t much surprised, not after seeing the pickup’s engine blow up so spectacularly. In all likelihood, Anna’s single shot had taken the robbers out of commission for a good while, if not for good, making the road a little bit safer for everyone.

He let go of the wheel with one hand to reach over and squeeze her fingers. He was proud of her.

A sudden rattle under the hood disturbed the quiet. “What the—?” Jake’s heart jumped into his throat at the unexpected noise. Then the engine let out a final shriek and died abruptly. They were coasting, rolling on momentum alone and quickly losing speed.

“What’s happening?” Anna’s voice was scratchy.

“Dunno.” Jake allowed the car to roll to a complete stop. He popped the hood and got out. Judging by the horrible noise, it couldn’t be good, and he dreaded what he’d find inside.

One look confirmed his worst fears: the engine had seized up. But how…? He’d checked the oil that morning, before they set out. The Ford was old, granted, but it wouldn’t go through its supply that quickly, would it?

Dropping to his knees, he squinted into the gloom under the chassis. A glistening drop of thick, black oil dripped onto the road even as he watched. It verified what he had already suspected: they’d been losing oil for a while, until it was all gone and the engine had run dry. With the dashboard warning lights broken, he’d had no idea that the oil levels were dropping as fast as they were until it was too late.

He pushed back to his feet, punching the side of the car with a closed fist. “Dammit!” He curled both hands around the edge of the truck’s bed, leaning forward and groaning in frustration.

“Jake?” Anna climbed out and stood next to the open passenger door, hugging herself.

He raised his head slowly to meet her gaze across the bed of the truck. “Something’s damaged the oil pan. Could’ve been a bullet, or just a rock.”

“Can you fix it?”

Jake puffed up his cheeks and exhaled. “The leak? Probably.” He pushed away from the truck. “But the oil’s all gone, and the engine’s seized up.” He shook his head. “Can’t fix that with my bare hands, or those simple tools we have.” And if, by some miracle, he could have, they wouldn’t get far without replacing the oil they’d lost. “I’m sorry, it’s my fault.” He should’ve stopped the minute they were safe from pursuit, to check the car over for damage. He couldn’t be certain a bullet had caused the leak, but it didn’t stop him from wanting to punch the truck again from sheer frustration.

“Don’t blame yourself.” Anna walked around the car to join him. “What’s done is done.” She scanned the flat, empty landscape, looking lost. “What do we do now?”

Jake sighed. There was only one thing they could do. “We walk.” In his head, he tried to calculate how far they’d already traveled, and how far they had to go. “We collect what we can carry, and go on foot.”

Anna’s mouth fell open and she squeaked, “To Houston?”

“If you’ve got a better idea, I’d like to hear it.” Anna recoiled, and Jake instantly regretted his words. None of this was her fault. “Sorry. I don’t know what else we can do.”

Anna gnawed her lip. She patted the truck. “At least it got us this far.”

The quaver in her voice betrayed how fake her cheerfulness was. Jake barked a humorless laugh. They’d traveled more miles today than they had yesterday, but they still weren’t even halfway to Houston. Which meant that―unless they could find another mode of transport in one of the towns along the way―they were faced with a two hundred mile hike. Two weeks of walking, at least.

“We should get going. We don’t know―.” He gestured in the direction they’d come from. Anna shivered visibly, before ducking into her side of the truck to get her belongings.

They packed as many of their possessions into their bags as they could carry. Jake collected what remained of their food into one of the airline blankets and flung the makeshift knapsack over his shoulder. Shouldering it with his duffel bag was unwieldy. In hindsight, he wished he’d thought to get them backpacks in Vernon. Then again, he couldn’t have foreseen the need; he’d been expecting to drive to Houston, not hike halfway across the state.

With a final look inside the truck to satisfy himself they’d gotten everything, they set out, abandoning the Ford on the road where it had died: one more wreck to clutter the Texan highways. The bottom edge of the sun was clipping the western horizon, and they’d have to start looking for a place to spend the night soon. But Jake wanted to get away from the truck first. It was too conspicuous, sitting out on the open highway, and he didn’t entirely trust that the road gang was no longer pursuing them. And there might be others, as well. No, better be safe than sorry.

An hour passed. The sun disappeared completely, and dusk lay heavy on the ground as a cloud front moved in from the north, blotting out the stars. Jake began to despair of ever finding a safe spot to bunk in. The narrow track they were on—they’d left the highway at the first intersection they came to—stretched out as far as the eye could see, and the landscape surrounding them was flat and bare, with only the occasional thorny bush to break the monotony.

Jake was almost ready to suggest sleeping in one of the numerous gullies the criss-crossed the hard ground―at least it’d keep them out of sight and provide shelter from the night wind―when he spotted a trio of what he suspected were grain silos on the horizon, their square shapes barely discernible in the encroaching darkness.

“Let’s make for those.” He pointed them out to Anna. “We can spend the night there.”

She muttered an agreement, hoisting her bag higher onto her shoulder, and slogged on. He wished he could offer to take her bag from her, but his own load was too heavy and awkward, and he knew better than to wear himself out in the first ten miles when they had so far to go. With a sigh filled with frustration, he followed her, his larger strides allowing him to catch up quickly.

The silos were further than Jake had reckoned and it took them twenty minutes to reach them, by which time it was full dark. Jake was grateful they’d brought the flashlights from the plane along, or they’d have stumbled right past the silos in the darkness. Luckily they weren’t far out in the fields, and a rutted track led up to them from the main road. Judging by the rust stains on the steel walls and the weeds that had sprouted up in the ruts in the access track, they hadn’t been used for some time. Good; they didn’t need to worry about a disgruntled farmer chasing them off his property come morning.

Anna let her bag fall into the dirt with a tired sigh. She flopped down next to it, shoulders slumped. Her hair fell forward, obscuring her face.

“You okay?”

“I’m fine.” Anna slowly lifted her head. Jake could barely make out her features in the even deeper shadows among the silos, but he thought she gave him a wan smile. “It’s just been a very long day.”

He gave her a long, searching stare, but she bent her head again and started rummaging through her bag. He dropped his own bags in the coarse grass and untied the blanket holding their supplies, scowling at the meager fare it contained.

A sudden flicker of light and dancing shadows startled him from inspecting the food. Anna had lit one of the candle stubs Mrs. Cramer had given them. The flame wavered in the soft evening breeze.

She pointed at the flashlight he was still holding. “You can switch that off, I think.”

“Be careful with that candle,” Jake warned. They did need to spare the flashlight’s battery, but he didn’t want to accidentally start a wildfire. The earth might be damp from the rains that had fallen two nights earlier, but the yellowed grass was dry and brittle.

Holding the candle gingerly between her fingers, Anna peered around for a safe spot to put it. She finally chose one of the concrete blocks that supported the legs of the silos. Jake watched with approval as she wiped the surface clean of the dry debris that had collected there, and let a couple drops of wax fall onto the concrete before settling the candle in the hardening blob. At least they wouldn’t risk the candle falling over and setting fire to the whole field.

The tiny flame didn’t provide much light, but it was enough to see by in the darkness. Once his vision had gotten used to the intense gloom, Jake offered Anna a packet of their crackers and a candy bar. She rolled her eyes at him, and he grimaced in sympathy. She nibbled on the crackers anyway.

Swallowing, she yawned. The sight triggered a similar yawn in Jake, which he failed to hide behind his hand.

Anna chuckled quietly. “Guess we should get some sleep, huh?”

“I guess so.” Jake tossed a last piece of cracker into his mouth. “It has been a long day.”

Leaving Anna to carefully pack up what little remained of their food, Jake spread a blanket out under one of the bulky silos, fumbling around on hands and knees in the three or four feet of crawl space under the silo’s base. He chose a patch of ground that was overgrown with tall grass, hoping it’d make for a softer mattress.

It had grown chilly while they ate their supper, and he shivered. “It’s gonna get cold tonight,” he warned Anna. “You best put on an extra sweater if you brought one.” While the days were still warm, the bite of autumn was starting to make itself known at night.

“Good idea.” Carrying her overnight bag with her, Anna disappeared behind one of the silos for a short while. Jake listened to the rustling sounds that suggested she was not only putting on extra clothes but also brushing her teeth. Her routine complete, she came back and crawled underneath the silo. She wrapped one of the airplane blankets tightly around her. After finishing his own routine, Jake blew out the candle and joined her in the small, protected space, trying to make himself comfortable on the uneven ground.

His thoughts drifted back to the night before, to how they’d slept in the cab of the truck. It had been a tight and uncomfortable fit, but it had provided shelter from the elements. Dammit, if only he hadn’t been such a fool and had checked on the truck earlier…

“I’m sorry,” he muttered.

“For what?” Anna raised herself onto her elbows.

“Dragging you into this mess, I guess.” Jake wasn’t sure if he was merely talking about losing the truck, or about everything: Freddy’s death and the mad flight from San Diego with Ravenwood on their tail. If he hadn’t tried to talk Freddy out of the job, if he’d done what Hicks had wanted them to do, Anna’d be safe and warm in her own bed in San Diego instead of sleeping under an abandoned grain silo like she was a drifter.

“Isn’t your fault.” He could see her shape, faintly outlined against the lighter sky beyond the shadows of the silo, as she shifted around and lay back.

He drew in a breath. The air smelled of grass and dirt. “I should’ve checked the car for―.”

“Maybe.” Anna sat back up. While he couldn’t make out her face, he sensed she was looking at him. “But you didn’t tell those guys to go rob people. You didn’t make those bombs go off.” She shivered. “And you didn’t kill Freddy.”

“No, but―,” he began.

“Then don’t say you’re sorry.” She took a fresh gulp of air. “Jake, none of that is your fault. It… it just happened, okay?”

He was too tired to argue. “Okay.”

“Good.” She lay down and curled in on herself, resting one hand beneath her cheek. “Good night.”

Jake uttered a wry chuckle. “G’night.” He folded one arm behind his head for a pillow. Silence descended over the silos, the soft swishing of the wind through the grass the only sound. Jake started to fall asleep.

“Jake?” Anna’s voice tugged him back to reality.

“Hmm?”

“It’s cold…”

He could hear the chatter in her voice. The wind had picked up, reaching them even beneath the grain silo. And despite the spare shirt he’d put on, the cold was already creeping through the thin airplane blankets to chill him as well. “Hey, come here.” Reaching out, his fingers closed on her elbow. He pulled lightly, underscoring his words. She quickly scooted closer, and Jake wrapped the blankets around both of them, while she nestled against his chest. He could feel the difference instantly, as her body heat seeped into him. The contented murmur she uttered suggested the heat transfer was working in both directions. A minute later, her breathing evened out into a slow, regular pattern.

Jake stared up at the sliver of sky he could see beyond their hiding place, the stars hidden behind the clouds. He tried hard not to feel guilty he was holding Freddy’s woman in his arms for a second night. Rationally, sharing body heat was the best solution if they didn’t want to freeze to death, but he was afraid of waking up again in another intimate embrace, with his nose buried in her hair.

It was a long time before he fell asleep.

o0o

Chapter 6

Two days later, in the middle of nowhere, they came across a gas station. It sat at a crossroads where a small paved back-road intersected with an even narrower dirt track. Jake’s heart leaped with relief when he spotted it through the rain. The miserable cold drizzle had started falling half an hour earlier from lead-colored clouds and already had them chilled to the bone. Jake had been dreading having to spend the night out in the open. While they’d lucked out the first night with the silos, they hadn’t found anything beyond a thorny bush at the rim of a dry gully on the second day. Neither would’ve served well in a steady drizzle.

As they trudged closer to the gas station, Jake’s relief quickly turned sour. The place was abandoned; the two elderly pumps were coated with a layer of dust that was turning into sticky mud in the rain, and a sign in the window of the small convenience store beyond the pumps announced it was closed.

Jake tried the door anyway. It was locked tight. Planting his hands either side of his face, he peered through the window into the gloom. He could spot no movement inside; with the power out and traffic virtually non-existent, the shop’s attendant must’ve reached the conclusion there was no business to be done and gone home.

One glance at Anna, who was shivering uncontrollably inside her thin coat, her hair plastered against her face, confirmed Jake’s decision about what to do next. “Step back,” he warned, as he turned his face away and smashed in the door’s window with his elbow. Carefully brushing the shards of glass away, he reached in and unlocked the door. He felt a mild pang of guilt at the damage, but the time for scruples over such issues had long since gone.

He went in first, looking around in the dim light of the rainy afternoon. The vending machines and the coolers were as dead as anything else that ran on electricity, of course. And they’d be out of the rain, but he didn’t see any way for them to dry off and warm up. He wasn’t gonna complain, though: the place was dry and the shelves were full, so they could stock up on supplies before setting out on the next part of their journey.

He went in search of something to use to board up the broken window, leaving Anna to set up ‘camp’ in the aisle at back of the store, in front of the defunct coolers and away from the puddle the rain was making on the tiles nearer the door. Discovering a stack of cardboard storage boxes in a back room, he tore one of the boxes up and taped a large piece of cardboard over the broken window. The rain would soak through eventually, but for the time being, it’d keep the wet and the wind out of the store.

With the window taken care of, he foraged among the stacks for something to eat, returning to where Anna was laying out their blankets with his arms full of salty snacks, chocolate bars and half-liter bottles of warm soda. It’d make a filling―if perhaps not very healthy―meal.

He dropped his hoard onto the blanket and sank to his knees. “Hey, dinner’s served.”

Anna couldn’t muster more than a wan smile in reply. Jake was glad to see she did manage to eat a couple handfuls of potato chips, though; she hadn’t complained once, but she was still suffering from bouts of nausea, and the last thing he needed was for her to get sick for real.

By the time they were done eating, it had grown fully dark outside. They’d burned the last of their candles the night before, and their eyes quickly grew used to the gloom inside. Exhausted as they were from several full days of hiking, they didn’t need many words to agree they’d best get to sleep. Jake took the empty wrappers and dumped them in a trash can he’d spotted next to the door, while Anna shook the crumbs off their makeshift bed. Fumbling in the dark, they climbed under the blankets, trying to get comfortable. Jake felt oddly alone, with Anna wrapped in her own blanket three feet away. The last couple nights, they’d been sharing body heat to keep out the wind and cold, and he’d grown used her presence.

Giving himself a mental shake, Jake pushed the feeling away. That would only lead down a dangerous path he wasn’t willing to travel. Doing his best to ignore the hardness of the tiles under him, he promised himself that when he woke up, he’d investigate the small store for whatever they could use. As sheer exhaustion overtook him, he drifted off into a dreamless sleep, soothed by the sound of the dripping rain.

o0o

A shrill ringing in Jake’s ears brought him to sit bolt upright, his heart pounding against his ribs. He blinked at his surroundings, staring in bewilderment at the bottles of motor oil lined up at eye level.

Gas station store, his brain supplied sluggishly. That explained the strange view. But what was the noise that had woken him? At Jake’s side, Anna was also stirring awake. Otherwise, the room was quiet. The rain front had passed in the night and sunlight was streaming through the front windows, slowly warming the place up.

Had he simply dreamed the sound?

“Did you―?” Anna asked sleepily.

The ringing that had woken Jake hammered through the quiet store again, cutting abruptly through her question. He flung off his blanket and sprang to his feet, wide awake now.

“That sounded like a phone.” Anna had also sat up.

“Yeah, it did.” Jake stuffed his feet back into his boots. He swept his gaze around the store, not entirely sure where the sound had come from. As the phone rang a third time, it occurred to him it was in the most obvious place: mounted on the wall behind the register. Weaving through the stacks, he flung himself behind the counter and picked up the receiver. “H―Hello?”

The voice on the other end was clear and precise. “Hello, this is Assistant Secretary Walsh from the Department of Homeland Security. Do not be alarmed. If you are safe, stay where you are. Do not attempt to leave. We will be in contact again shortly. Until then, know that help is on the way.”

“Who is it?” Anna’s expression was filled with eager hope as she joined him at the counter, her hair tousled and her eyes puffy with sleep. Jake motioned her closer and angled the receiver so she could hear the message along with him.

“Hello, this is Assistant Secretary Walsh from the Department of Homeland Security…”

Jake hung up after they’d listened to the message a dozen times. There wasn’t going to be anything else. Not at this point, at least.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Absently, Anna ran her fingers through the tangles in her hair, hiding a yawn behind her other hand.

“Beats me.” Jake lifted the receiver again, hoping to get a dial tone. It wasn’t there; instead the same message was being repeated. With a scowl, he set the receiver down and moved out from behind the counter. He wasn’t surprised he couldn’t dial out, but it didn’t mean he wasn’t disappointed. “Thank God, somebody’s finally back in charge, by the sound of it. And―.”

He broke off abruptly, staring. The coolers in the back of the store were lit and humming contentedly, motors running to keep their contents cold, as if nothing untoward had happened. He tilted his head: yup, the overhead lights were on too, the fluorescents buzzing softly. He hadn’t noticed their glare against the sunlight streaming in, but now that he was aware the power had been restored, he grew conscious of the background noises from various electrical appliances around the store. In the wake of the utter silence of a world without electricity, the combined effect was positively loud.

“—and the power’s back on,” he finished, exchanging a happy smile with Anna as he gestured at the ceiling lights. These were all good signs, more indications that someone was working on fixing the situation.

“Yes, I can see―Oh!” Jake caught a glimpse of delight crossing Anna’s face, before she scurried off between the shelves.

Curious as to what had her so excited, Jake followed her at a slower pace. As he walked by the large front window, he ducked his head to peek out and confirm they were still alone. “What is it?”

Anna stuck her head around the shelf she’d disappeared. She grinned. “You want coffee?”

“Coffee?” Jake’s mouth watered at the thought. “God yes.”

She smirked knowingly, and popped back out of sight. Those first weeks after he and Freddy had gotten back from Iraq and he’d attempted to drown his guilt in alcohol, she’d often brewed him coffee while she was closing up the bar. He’d never been able to tell if it was because she thought he was too wasted to get home okay or if she’d known he didn’t want to go home and be alone with his ghosts. At the time, he hadn’t cared. But now―.

Swallowing a lump, he looked around for something to distract him while he listened to the quiet sound of her puttering around out of sight. He didn’t want to think about those days, or what Anna must’ve made of him.

There was a small TV by the register, put there to entertain the clerk during slow hours. He switched it on; he didn’t expect the image to show anything beyond static, so it came as a surprise that there was an actual―if rather snowy―picture.

“There’s a signal?” The soft prattle of a percolator starting up formed the background to Anna’s question.

“Looks like.” Jake located the remote and flipped through the channels to see if he could find a broadcast that might tell him more. The same placeholder card, asking them to stand by, showed on every channel. He offered Anna a lopsided grin. “There’s nothing on, though.”

As far as jokes went, it wasn’t that funny, but a small giggle burst out of her, and he was glad to see her spirits were lifting. The events of the last week had been hard on her. And not just the long miles of walking. Losing Freddy, having to leave home in a hurry, the bombs, running into that road gang…

Hard on him, too. He’d tried not to show it, not wanting to upset her even more, but nearly getting robbed—or worse—had shaken him up more than he wanted to admit. Even after he’d witnessed the looting in Vernon and the ransacked wrecks on the road, it wasn’t easy to accept how fast law and order had been replaced with chaos and anarchy. Ever since they’d had to abandon their truck, he’d over fretted how he could keep Anna safe in this new world where thugs could be hiding around every corner and under every bush. With the power on and the authorities taking the reins again, the nightmare would hopefully soon be over.

The smell of freshly brewed coffee was beginning to fill the store. “Mmm, that smells great.” Jake inhaled deeply, while fiddling with the controls on the TV set in an unsuccessful attempt to get the picture to clear up. The store was using an old-fashioned receiver, and the power outage must’ve misaligned the antenna. He couldn’t remember if he’d seen an aerial on the roof, but to be honest, he hadn’t exactly been looking for one.

“Here.” Anna had unearthed a stack of travel mugs and she set one on the counter in front of him. Sweet-smelling steam wafted up. “Found these too.” She set a box of peanut butter cups and a packet of sweet rolls next to the coffee. “Breakfast.”

Jake stopped messing with the TV and lifted the mug to his face. He took a deep whiff before taking a sip. He peered at her over the rim of his cup. “Thank you.”

She smiled. “You’re welcome.”

“Should you be drinking that?” Jake nodded at the mug Anna was holding between her hands.

She peered up at him. “Why―?” Her confusion cleared. “Oh, you mean, on account of the baby?”

“Yes.” Jake tore open the plastic wrapper and sank his teeth into one of the peanut butter cups. It was sweet, almost too sweet, but it definitely tasted better than the stale crackers they’d subsisted on for the last few days. Still, he longed for something a touch heartier.

Anna gave him a reassuring nod. “It’s okay, as long as I don’t overdo it.” Her smile changed into a rueful half-grin. “I guess that’s not exactly a risk, huh?”

Jake huffed a laugh. “No, I guess not.” He took a longer swallow of coffee and relished the bitter taste on his tongue.

Anna’s smile faded as she set her mug on the counter and picked up a sweet roll. “To be honest, I am kinda worried about our diet.” She laid her free hand on her stomach which was still as flat as ever, as far as Jake could tell. “The stuff we’ve been eating lately… It’s not exactly healthy.”

Jake swallowed the last of the peanut butter cup and thought about what she’d said. She was right; while they weren’t starving, their diet was hardly what a doctors would advise. “We’ll see if we can find a farmer who’s willing to sell us some of his harvest,” he promised her. “Fruit, or tomatoes.” While he’d prefer to avoid contact with others if they could, he didn’t know what else to suggest; they’d finished off their apples a few days ago, and he was grateful they had anything to eat at all. But the gas station obviously catered to long-distance travelers and the local kids. While it was well-stocked with candy and snack food and soda, it had no fresh produce or vegetables. “And perhaps get you some vitamins,” he added. “I think I saw a shelf of medicines.” There should be vitamins among the diet pills and painkillers, shouldn’t there?

“That’d be good.” Anna’s tone didn’t sound any less doubtful and she had yet to take a bite from the roll she held. She sipped from her coffee again.

Jake narrowed his eyes as he studied her from under his lashes, not wanting her to notice his concern. In all likelihood, it was the morning sickness; she probably simply wasn’t feeling too well.

The realization did help him reach a decision he only now grew conscious he’d been considering in the back of his mind ever since he’d heard Secretary Walsh’s voice over the phone. “I’m thinking we should stay put for the day.” He threw back the last swig of his coffee and set the empty mug down, licking his lips.

Anna rested her elbows on the counter. “Stay put?”

“We’ve been walking for two days straight. You should rest.” Anna opened her mouth to protest, and Jake quickly continued, “Me, too. We both could do with a break.” While he didn’t mind the physical exertion, he wasn’t sixteen anymore, and sleeping on the hard ground and lugging their bags for hours on end was making him feel it. “And it’ll give us a chance to see what that―,” he flapped a hand at the TV, which persisted in showing the same snowy placard, “―is all about.”

Anna’s eyes flicked in the direction of the screen, and he could see the inner debate reflected on her face. She wanted to get to Houston as fast as possible, but she was as curious about what the government had to tell them as he was. “Who knows,” he added, as a final enticement, “could be the phone will start working properly, and you can call home.”

“You really think so?” Her eyes shone with naked hope.

“They fixed the power, didn’t they?”

She chewed her bottom lip. “Okay. You’re right. We’ll stay here for the day. But we go on in the morning?”

“Yes.” And if Walsh’s news wasn’t entirely positive and they were still faced with a lengthy trek to Houston in the morning, at least a day of rest would do them both good. Anna hadn’t mentioned she was tired once, these past two days, but the forced march must be taking its toll on her, too. Sticking around would also give him a chance to thoroughly search the store for whatever else they could use.

Also, with the power back on, the owner might come check on the store, and with luck, he and Anna might hitch a ride. Assuming―Jake glanced at the crumpled candy wrappers and crumbs left over from breakfast―the owner didn’t chase them off for looting first.

Anna gathered up their mugs and carried them back to the percolator, while Jake’s grin faded as he gathered up the wrappers. What if nobody came? If life never went back to normal? Never mind; he’d worry about that another time. For now, he had a store to explore and a TV channel to monitor.

After dumping the trash into the can, Jake took another look at the TV. Nothing had changed. Shaking his head, he checked the TV’s sound was on high, so he’d be alerted to any squeak that came out of it, and started his inspection of the area behind the register in earnest.

In the second drawer he pulled out from under the counter, he struck gold: a handgun resting on top of a sheaf of old receipts. Whistling softly in pleased surprise at the sight of it, he gingerly lifted it out for a closer look. It was a Ruger P89 9mm. Would hold fifteen rounds in the clip, if he wasn’t mistaken, and definitely a more effective deterrent than the flare gun. Releasing the latch, he let the magazine slide out. He clucked his tongue in annoyance: it was empty. After checking there wasn’t a bullet in the chamber either, he laid the gun down next to the register and began digging through the remaining drawers. If he couldn’t find any ammunition, then the Ruger would be about as effective as throwing a rock as far as self-defense went.

Deep in the back of the bottom drawer, his fingers closed on a square cardboard box. “Ha!” He let out a small cry of triumph as he dragged the heavy box out in the open and confirmed it was full of fresh rounds. He set the box beside the gun, planning to check the weapon over carefully before loading it. But the find cheered him more than even the power being restored or the reassuring words of Assistant Secretary Walsh had done.

Which reminded him… He lifted the phone’s receiver to check again for a dial tone. Nope. Nothing except the recording. He listened briefly to the cool, measured words of Walsh to confirm it was the exact same message, before putting the receiver back in its cradle. He’d try later.

He pondered the rest of the store, surveying the neat shelves as he tried to make up his mind where to continue his reconnaissance.

“Anna?”

Her muffled response came from behind the stacks. “Yeah?”

“I’m gonna take a look around outside.” The sunlight beckoned him and he could go through the store later. “Wanna come?” Fresh air would do her good.

She didn’t reply right away. “No, thanks.”

“Okay.” Better not to push. He rounded the counter and sauntered to the door. The soggy cardboard covering the broken window was drying out quickly in the sun’s heat. A strip of tape on one of the corners had come loose and was dangling. Jake peeled it off; he’d have to fix that if they were going to spend a second night in the store. “I won’t go far. Holler if you need me.”

The sunlight outside was brighter than the fluorescents in the store and stung Jake’s eyes. He blinked rapidly as he adjusted to the glare. He squinted around, for the first time taking a proper look at the place they’d ended up at. The gas station was similar to hundreds in the country: a pair of pumps; oil stains on the concrete; a flagpole flying the American flag; a station for drivers to check the air pressure in their tires.

A tumbleweed rolled by the pump island, chased onward by a puff of wind, and Jake watched it head on across the road. It was the silence that struck him the hardest: the chirp of crickets in the grass and the song of unseen birds serving to underscore it. The lights might be on, the coolers running and Homeland Security urging them to stay put, but it was pretty clear that the situation was far from normal.

He jogged to the center of the crossroads and slowly swiveled a full circle to scan in all four directions, shielding his eyes with his hand as he stared into the sun. All he saw were straight-running, endless, sandy roads and bare fields shimmering under the morning sun. It promised to be a warm day, perhaps the last day of summer. Tilting his head back, he instinctively checked the sky. It was blue, with a small scattering of tiny white patches that would billow into clouds during the day. Otherwise, it was empty. He chuckled wryly; subconsciously, he’d been searching for contrails or a spark of sunlight glinting off of an aircraft. He’d never been fully aware of how normal planes going by overhead had always been.

Turning his back on the crossroads, he returned to the flat-roofed gas station store. Not holding out much hope he’d discover anything other than more flat grassland on the far side of the building, he walked around the corner. He discovered a ladder screwed into the back wall, its rusty rungs leading up to the roof. An idea struck: if he climbed up, he might be able to see further, and perhaps spot a field of crops he could raid for vegetables. Tomatoes or squash, or maybe sweet potatoes. Although he had no idea how they’d cook those.

Well, he’d worry about that once he’d found something. For now, he had other concerns. Grabbing hold of a rung, he tested it. It felt sturdy enough.

A minute later, he was hoisting himself up over the edge of the roof. The view from up there was similar to the one from the ground: dusty roads and dustier grass stretching to the horizon. Except to the east… Jake scrunched his eyes into slits. He detected a smudge of green that might be a vegetable field far, far away. Three miles, at least. Would it be worth checking out? It was too far for him to tell what was growing there and if it wasn’t anything edible, he’d have wasted his energy for no gain.

He shelved the idea for the moment. The direction of the sun wasn’t helping with making out what was in the field; he’d try again in a couple hours, after the sun had moved on. He might have a better chance, then, of figuring out if his eyes were playing tricks on him or not.

As he aimed for the ladder, he picked out the TV’s antenna screwed to a pole on the corner of the roof. Perhaps he could fix the bad reception, since he was on the roof anyway.

He walked over the front edge of the roof and peered down. “Anna?” He’d need someone to tell him if moving the antenna was making the image clearer or fuzzier. There was no response to his call. He tried again. “Anna!” As before, no answer. He tried her name a third time, louder, and still received no reply. He frowned; she should be able to hear him through the broken window, shouldn’t she?

Hurrying back to the ladder, he quickly climbed down and trotted around to the front. The tiny bell jingled as he shut the door behind him and scanned the place. The store seemed empty and his heart started thumping against his ribs, visions of her passed out on the floor, or worse, assaulting him. “Anna?” He raced toward the back, rounding the stacks so fast he nearly lost his balance. The blankets were where they’d left them, as were their bags. But no Anna. Where was she?

He was drawing breath to shout her name once more, when he heard her voice drifting out from the back room. He exhaled, the tension flowing out of him along with the air. She was singing to herself, her voice muted by the door. That was why she hadn’t heard him call.

Put-out at his own unwarranted panic―the events of the past days had obviously set him more on edge than he’d realized―Jake opened the door. “Anna, I could use your help with―Oh!” To his consternation, she had stripped down to her underwear, a pile of clothes lying on the tiled floor at her feet. He gulped in embarrassment, quickly averting his eyes to look anywhere except at her as his cheeks heated up. “God, I’m sorry. I didn’t―.”

Talking to the tiles was too weird, though. His gaze involuntarily flicked up at her briefly. She’d snatched up a shirt to cover herself with, but didn’t appear too upset at the way he’d waltzed in on her. “Uh, what are you doing?”

“Laundry.” There was a hint of laughter in her tone, which gave Jake the courage to dart her another quick peek. Holding up the shirt with one hand, she was gesturing with the other towards a sink filled with soapy water. “There’s hot water, and I found detergent. And since we’re staying… I thought it’d be a good idea to wash a few things.”

“Oh.” Jake’s mind had gone blank and he couldn’t come up with a better reply. How could he, with the afterimage of tanned, smooth skin and black lacy underthings barely covering her burned in his brain.

“I, um,” a note of uncertainty crept into her tone, “I took yours too. Hope that’s okay?”

“What?” Jake’s head shot up. It was only then he noted the shirt she was using to hide behind was one of his. “No, you shouldn’t―that’s not―.” He’d taken a step into the room to snatch the shirt away from her before he caught himself. He stopped. “You don’t have to do that. I can do it myself.” He didn’t want her to tire herself for no good reason.

“It’s no trouble. But, um,” she gave him a wry smile, “I’d like to get on with it while the water’s warm. So, unless you wanted me for something, maybe you could…?” She dipped her head at the door.

“What… Oh, yes, of course. No, it can wait.” Feeling his face burning afresh, Jake fled from the room and shut the door behind him. He puffed up his cheeks, exhaling slowly and scrubbed his hands over his face, noticing they were trembling. Dammit, Jake, he told himself. Get a grip. This wasn’t the first time he’d seen a girl in her underwear, so why had it gotten him so flustered? Because this was Anna, he answered his own question, who’d been his best friend’s fiancée.

He snatched a bottle of cold water from one of the coolers, holding it to his face while he tried to banish the images etched onto his mind. He unscrewed the bottle and took a deep gulp. Dammit, he should’ve knocked.

o0o

Anna was as thorough at laundry as she had been at tending bar in San Diego. She even went as far as to make Jake exchange the shirt he was wearing for a wrinkled but clean one. He frowned as he put it on: it was still damp.

“Sorry.” She smiled sheepishly as she caught his grimace. “I held it under the hand dryer in the bathroom. Not very effective, huh?”

He snorted a laugh at that―she certainly was resourceful. “No problem. It’ll dry out soon enough.”

Next, she had him string a rope from the store to the flag pole on the other side of the parking lot, so she could hang out the rest of their wet clothes, the sun and the breeze quickly drying them.

While Anna was busy at the sink, Jake used the rest of the morning to clean and oil the Ruger, sacrificing a couple of rounds and empty beer bottles from the stock room for target practice. Once he was satisfied he’d figured out how the gun handled and how to improve his accuracy with the weapon, he’d ransacked the store’s supplies.

That had turned up a second treasure: a small transistor radio sitting on a shelf next to the register. After he’d put in fresh batteries, it proved to be in good working order, although every channel was broadcasting the same pre-recorded voice speaking the same pre-recorded words as the phone. He switched it off after a few minutes to avoiding running down the batteries and put it with the rest of the supplies he’d gathered: food, spare batteries, flashlights―whatever else they could find a use for.

They wouldn’t be able to take everything he’d collected, so they’d need to prioritize later, but next to the Ruger and the radio, their best discovery had been an old backpack Anna had found in one of the closets. They’d no idea who’d left it there, but a number of patches with the flags of foreign countries sewn onto the canvas spoke of its previous owner’s adventurous nature. Despite being well-worn and frayed in places, it’d help immensely with carrying their provisions comfortably.

As the hours ticked away, Jake kept one eye out for visitors and the other on the television screen. But the owner of the gas station never showed—and neither did anyone else—while the television kept on displaying the same old image, if a little less snowy after he’d messed with the aerial on the roof. And every time he picked up the phone, he was treated to the same recording, telling them to sit tight. Getting a working phone out of the authorities was not to be expected at this point, it seemed, nor any idea how long it would take for the promised help to arrive. Jake reckoned they’d be best off continuing to head for Houston the next morning and trying to call Anna’s parents whenever they came across a pay phone.

By late afternoon, he’d climbed the ladder to the roof a second time. The sun was inching toward the horizon and the shadows were lengthening, and the faraway field was as hard to make out as before. Still not sure what was growing on it, Jake decided to set out for it anyway. Anna would be okay on her own, with a loaded gun for protection and the skill to use it, should the need arise. “I won’t be long,” he promised her as he got ready, taking the flare gun for himself.

“Okay.” She was busy collecting their dried clothes off the line, frowning at how stiff the jeans had gotten without softener. “Be careful.”

He grinned. “Will do.”

o0o

Jake neither saw nor heard a living soul during the two hours it took him to hike out to the field and back. It was the edge of dusk and the lights were on in the store as he pushed open the door and walked back in. Anna emerged from between the shelves at the jingle of the door bell, clutching the gun in one hand.

“Good, you’re back.” She relaxed visibly.

Jake’s brow creased in concern. “Everything okay?” Perhaps something had happened during his absence to spook her.

She licked her lips and gave a small shrug. “I’m just a little jumpy, I guess.”

Jake chuckled wryly. “It’s been a weird week.”

She snorted in agreement. “You find anything?” She looked meaningfully at the heavy burlap sack Jake was carrying.

“Yup.” He upended the sack on the counter by the register, shaking out a jumble of dirt-covered carrots. They’d been ready for harvesting, and he’d gotten the sack from a mound of similar bags that were apparently meant for packing the produce in.

Anna laughed at the heap of orange roots and green stalks. “Jake, what are we gonna do with all those?”

“Eat them, what else?” He indicated the TV with a nod. “Any change?”

“What? No…” Anna picked up one of the carrots, brushing of the dirt clinging to it. She studied the rest of the pile. “All of them? Tonight? Jake, there’s at least—.”

“No, not tonight.” Jake huffed a laugh. “We’ll take what we don’t finish with us. They’ll hold for a while, and won’t squash.” Her expression fell. “And hey,” he tried, “carrots are good for your health.”

“I guess.” She didn’t smile back, merely traced a finger through the clumps of dirt on the counter, avoiding meeting his eyes.

Jake’s own smile withered. “Hey, what’s up?”

“Nothing’s changed, has it?” Anna brushed the soil off her fingertips. “I tried the phone while you were gone, but it’s that same stupid message.” She finally lifted her gaze up to Jake’s. “Nobody’s coming for us.”

“Not if we stay here, no, I don’t think so.” If anyone was going to come, they would’ve shown up already. He reached out to brush a strand of hair from her face, dropping his hand just shy of touching her. “We’ll be fine. We’ve got ourselves decent supplies: we’ve got food, flashlights, blankets…” He looked over meaningfully to where she’d been folding and repacking their belongings, and forced his lips into a smile. “Clean clothes…”

Anna let out a sound that landed somewhere between a sob and a laugh, and scrubbed at her eyes with the back of her hand. “And carrots.”

Jake laughed, for real this time. “Yes, and carrots.” Without thinking, he pulled her close and dropped a kiss in her hair. Anna held on to him as he tried to step away again, her fingers bunching into his shirt. He could feel her trembling, and he couldn’t bring himself to deny her the support she needed. Wrapping his arms around her, he held her awkwardly until she was ready.

At last she sniffled and drew back. “Sorry.” She flailed a hand. “I guess I’m a little… emotional.” She began to stuff the carrots back into the sack. “These won’t scrub themselves.”

Jake took the carrots from her. “I can do that. You take it easy, ‘kay?”

Jake washed the vegetables thoroughly and spread them out to dry before he packed them away. Gathering up two handfuls for dinner, he took them into the main store. Anna had collected herself while he’d been dealing with the carrots, and was laying paper plates and soda cans on the counter. She smiled shyly at him. Suspecting she was embarrassed about her outburst, Jake decided he’d best not mention it.

Raw carrots with cheese puffs and re-cooled soda made for a tastier dinner than he’d have ever expected; afterwards, he was full for the first time in days. By the time he’d wrapped up the rest of the carrots, night had fallen. They should finish packing their stuff and turn in soon if they wanted to move out in the morning.

“Jake…!” Something in Anna’s quiet exclamation caused Jake to drop the vegetables and whirl around, at the same time wondering where she’d left the Ruger. Red spots showed on her cheeks as she pointed at the TV. Jake’s own heart rate jumped as he saw the screen had changed to show the familiar image of a government lectern, the American flag standing behind it to the left.

Sucking in a surprised breath, Jake walked over to join Anna in front of the TV, their focus riveted on the screen. Surely the authorities were finally about to explain what had happened, and what the government was doing about it. But the time stretched on, seconds ticking into minutes, and still they waited for a spokesperson to climb up onto the platform. Jake fidgeted impatiently, shuffling from one foot to the other. They’d been watching the alert all day; were they supposed to watch the empty lectern all night?

“When―?” Anna started to ask the same question Jake was silently asking himself. Before she could get the second word out, the store was abruptly plunged into darkness. Both of them gasped as everything went dead at the same instant: the TV screen, the overhead lights, the coolers. The silence left in the wake of the blackout was palpable.

“That’s all?” Anna cleared her throat, her words drifting toward Jake. “That’s what we get for watching that stupid picture all day?” The tremor in her voice belied the sarcasm she’d been aiming for.

Jake’s vision struggled to adjust to the sudden blackness surrounding them as he heard Anna scramble for something. A beat later, she’d found it, the flashlight they’d put near the register, and switched it on.

“Dunno. I guess so.” Jake made his reply absently, blinking against the beam of light, as he considered this latest turn of events. Anna was right about one thing: it was far too coincidental to believe that, after waiting a whole day for the picture on the TV to change, a renewed blackout would strike at the exact same instant something was finally about to happen. And the way the machines had gone off wasn’t right, either: the abruptness with which everything had stopped working was weird. He’d gone through enough power failures to know there was always a tiny amount of juice left in the cables, so it took the larger appliances a second or two to peter out. But this? This had been blink-of-an-eye stillness. Considering what had happened to Dallas last week, he had an unwelcome hunch about what had caused it.

He prayed he’d gotten it wrong.

But how could he determine if he was right or not? The flashlight was still working, for which he was grateful, but it was a simple device and he didn’t think it provided enough evidence to invalidate his suspicion. And without electricity, nothing would work, no matter the reason―.

“The radio!” He jerked away from Anna and dashed across to their bags, tripping over them in the gloom. Dropping to his knees, he started poking through the backpack by touch. Where the heck was it?

“Jake, what are you doing?” Anna had followed him with the light.

He glanced up at her, shielding his eyes from the flashlight’s beam and she angled it downward to shine at her feet so he could make out her face. She was watching him with confusion, and perhaps a touch of fear. “The radio,” he asked, “where did you put it?”

“In here.” Anna knelt beside him, and pulled the radio out of a side compartment. “I thought it’d be safer there…”

“Thanks.” Jake took it from her and switched it on. Nothing happened; the radio emitted no sound whatsoever, not even static. Jake thumbed through the frequencies. No matter what he did, the radio remained as dead as every other appliance in the store. He opened the lid, took out the batteries and put them back in, jiggling them. The result was the same: nothing. “Dammit.” He should try a fresh set of batteries, straight from their packaging, and he planned do so in a minute.

He also already knew what he was going to discover when he did: it wasn’t the batteries that had died.

“Jake? What is it?” Fear was definitely starting to get an upper hand in Anna’s tone.

“I’m not sure, but…” Weird shadows played over her features as the flashlight shook in her grip. He took a deep breath. “I’m afraid this isn’t just an ordinary power failure. I think this was an EMP.”

“A what?”

“An electromagnetic pulse.” Jake set the radio down and scratched his neck. “Fries anything with a circuit board.”

“I don’t understand…”

“What it means,” Jake hated himself for telling her this, but she needed to know, “is that another nuke went off.”

o0o

Chapter 7

Shortly after the sun rose on the eastern horizon as an orange ball, Jake and Anna gathered up their meager possessions and set out. Despite the comforts of sleeping with a full belly and shelter from the elements, Jake had spent a restless night―the implications of new explosions had weighed too heavily on his mind to allow him to relax―and he’d been awake and up since the first hint of the new day started filtering through the store windows. He reckoned Anna hadn’t had slept well either: she’d been tossing restlessly under her blankets during the night, murmuring incomprehensibly as she dreamed.

Jake hadn’t been able to resist testing the various electrical appliances a final time, including the portable radio―as if he expected them to have been magically restored during the night. Of course the results had been as disheartening as the previous evening. With regret, Jake left the radio behind. They had plenty to carry already; there was no need to add dead weight.

While the day started out sunny, with the pinks and oranges of sunrise slowly fading to a pale blue sky, clouds had moved in by midday, painting the sky an ashen, featureless gray. The dull light threw the land in a bleak cast, matching Jake’s mood as he plodded on under the heavy backpack. Perhaps they should have gone with Harper and Robin after all. If he could’ve predicted everything that would happen after he and Anna left Vernon… Sure, Harper’s car had been stolen, and at the time it had seemed like a very bad idea. But Jake doubted that, with the whole country in such turmoil, Ravenwood or the Feds were much interested in him or Anna any longer, while local law enforcement definitely had more pressing concerns to deal with than one stolen old car. He huffed a wry snort. Damned fine job those local boys were making of it, too, with that road gang he and Anna had run into near Abilene.

Finally, the small dirt track they’d been hiking south on since they left the gas station intersected with a bigger road. Where the two roads met, a signpost stood, wooden arms pointing in all four directions to indicate various communities. Anna paused at the foot of the post and tilted her head to read the town names, before unfolding the map and squinting at it.

Jake shrugged off the heavy backpack and dropped it on on the ground. He rolled his stiff shoulders and uncapped his bottle of water to take a swallow. He was actually glad the sun was hidden behind the cloud cover; it kept the temperatures in the moderate mid-sixties, which made for pleasant hiking weather. He peered up at the featureless sky. He only hoped it wouldn’t start raining again.

Screwing the cap back onto his bottle, he joined Anna in studying the map. It wasn’t as easy to use for navigating on foot as he would’ve liked, since it was aimed at car travel, and the tiny tracks they’d been using were as often as not unmarked. They were relying on the occasional signpost, such as the current one, to determine their location and on the sun for general direction—which was a downside to the heavy cloud cover: while it kept it from getting too hot, it also didn’t make navigating a route south any easier.

“Brownwood…? Brownwood…?” Anna muttered one of the town names printed on the sign while trailing a finger over the map, attempting to locate it.

“There,” Jake pointed out. The word was printed in bigger letters than the tiniest community names.

“Ah… Thanks.” Using the medium-sized town as her starting point, Anna folded the map so she’d have a better overview of the remainder of their route. “If we go south, along here,” she waved at the bigger road, “we’ll eventually get to Austin.” She let the hand holding the map fall. “I’d expect we can get a ride to Houston there.”

“Hm, I don’t think we should go to Austin.” Palm stretched out, Jake wordlessly asked her for the map so he could take a closer look. “I was thinking we should go south-east, make for Fort Hood.” He showed her the large gray splotch that was the military post.

Anna frowned dubiously. “Why?”

Jake refolded the map. “Cause Austin’s not safe.” He was aware he was constantly harping on about the security issue and he hoped she wasn’t beginning to think he was being too cautious―or, worse, a paranoid wimp. He also knew he was right; he could feel it in his gut. “No fresh food being trucked in? No electricity…?” He shook his head. “I reckon cities like Austin will be hit a lot harder than those smaller communities we’ve passed.” He didn’t remind her how smaller towns such as Vernon or Redfield had barely been managing to hold on to what was considered civilized behavior. He pictured how a large city would react: hundreds of thousands of people crammed together, bereft of the normal constant stream of provisions and modern amenities. “The army’s used to dealing with crisis situations. We might be able to get help there.” Command structure and discipline would’ve kept the military up and running, after all, despite multiple attacks on US soil. Jake stuffed the map back into a side pocket. “At the very least, we’ll get the latest news.”

“I guess you’re right.” Anna’s tone remained doubtful, but she didn’t argue. Fort Hood was practically on their route to Houston, anyway, and they wouldn’t have to make a significant detour to reach it. Jake hoisted the backpack back onto his shoulders, involuntarily grunting beneath the weight.

“You sure you don’t want me to carry any of that?”

Jake shifted the backpack into a more comfortable position and took a step toward the road stretching to the south-east. “No, I’m good.” Anna had her own share to carry―he’d put her in charge of their blankets and the medical supplies they’d taken from the store―and he didn’t want to burden her with any of the heavier stuff.

They walked on for another hour, not speaking much, the steady activity of putting one foot in front of the other hypnotizing. They’d covered two or three miles, when the dull rumble of an engine brought Jake to full alert. An old, green pickup was lumbering up behind them. It wasn’t going fast, but fast enough that a thin trail of quickly-settling dust followed in its wake, and it was near enough that Jake could make out the shape of the driver behind the wheel.

Dammit. He’d been so caught up in his own thoughts that he’d failed to hear the engine until it was too late to hide. His hand slipped into his jacket pocket, closing on the Ruger’s grip. He suspected Anna was the better shot of the two of them―the way she’d hit that robbers’ truck spoke of a damned good eye―but he didn’t think she’d be up to firing a real gun directly at people, so he’d held on to the Ruger and given her the flare gun to use as a last resort.

As the truck―a dented 1950’s Chevrolet that looked more suited for a museum than a Texas backroad―came to a stuttering halt in front of them, Jake’s grip tightened on the gun and he dragged it half out of his pocket, careful to keep it concealed from the truck’s driver. Anna moved to stand closer to his left shoulder so she wouldn’t hinder him pulling the weapon out. Apprehension oozed from her.

“Howdy, folks.” The driver leaned into the passenger seat to hail them through the open window and Jake got a good look at the man, until then half-hidden beneath a large Stetson hat. Age had carved heavy lines into his face, which was tanned a deep brown from the sun. Grayish-white stubble covered his chin, and bushy brows sagged over friendly blue eyes. A quick look into the rust-speckled bed of the truck told Jake it was empty, reassuring him further that this particular stranger wasn’t a threat.

“G’day.” Jake accompanied his return greeting with a slight dip of his head.

“Whatcha folks doin’ all the way out here? You kids okay?” The old man’s gaze flicked from Jake to Anna and back. “‘Cause I take it y’all ain’t gone hikin’ for the fun of it.” He guffawed a brief laugh at his own joke, and Jake couldn’t help offer a lopsided grin in response.

“No, our car broke down a couple days ago.”

“Heh, lots of that been goin’ on lately. Not my old Bess, she’s still goin’ steady.” The guy chuckled and patted the steering wheel with an affectionate touch. The engine prattled on softly, making the entire truck vibrate ever so slightly, as if it was purring. “So, where’s y’all headed?”

“We were thinking we’d go to Fort Hood,” Jake said vaguely. Even if he no longer believed the old man was dangerous, he also didn’t want to reveal too many details about their plans as of yet.

“Well, ain’t that a stroke o’ luck. I’mma goin’ in that direction.” The driver furnished them with a grin, revealing a set of teeth that were too even to be his own as he gestured broadly. “Hop on in, I can give you a ride for a spell, leastways.”

Jake sought Anna’s gaze for a wordless consultation. She’d also relaxed at the stranger’s convivial demeanor, and she offered him a slight shrug that said, Why not?

“Alright. Thanks.” Reaching a decision, Jake let the backpack slip from his shoulders, his bones creaking as the weight lifted from them, and hoisted it into the back of the truck, before helping Anna stow her bags as well. The driver had already unlatched the passenger door and Jake pulled it open wider, gesturing for Anna to get in.

She made no move to climb up into the cab, offering him a small shake. “You go first.”

For an instant, Jake was puzzled, and then he figured it out, mentally kicking himself for being so slow. “Right. Of course.” Less opportunity for the old man to get fresh with her if Jake was there to act as a buffer between them. Not that Jake really expected the guy to make that kind of trouble, but obviously Anna had experience hitching rides with strangers.

The old man, unaware of their exchange, waited patiently until they were settled in and Anna had pulled the door closed. It was a tight fit in the narrow cab, and the air smelled faintly musty, of old sweat and tobacco, despite the breeze blowing in through the open windows. Jake was glad to be off his feet, and he wriggled to rub the spot where the straps of the heavy backpack had dug into his shoulders.

The driver hummed a tuneless song as he navigated carefully on along the dirt track. “Ernest Jackson.” He took his left hand off the wheel and extended it across his body Jake. “Call me Ernie.” He chuckled. “Only ones call me Ernest are my late wife, bless her, and the tax man.”

Maneuvering awkwardly in the narrow cab, Jake accepted the left-handed handshake. “Jake. And this is Anna.”

“Hi.” Anna offered Ernie a quick wiggle of her fingers, leaning forward to peer past Jake.

“Nice to meet y’all.” Ernie hummed softly while the old Chevy ambled steadily onward, never going faster than twenty miles an hour. “That was sumthin’, the other day, wasn’t it?” He took his eyes from the road briefly to peer sideways at Jake.

Jake started. “Um, what?”

“The clouds. You saw ’em, right? Goddamned mushrooms. Beggin’ yer pardon, Miss.” The last was directed at Anna, presumably for the language. “Ne’er thought I’d get to see that again. Not since those tests they did in the 1950s.” He spat out of his window. “Those poor folk. Ne’er stood a chance.”

As Ernie’s words fell away, the cab descended into an uncomfortable silence, broken only by the labored grumble of the ancient engine. Ernie’s words―clouds, plural―confirmed the gossip Jake had heard in Vernon: other cities beside Dallas had been hit. There wasn’t anything anyone could say to that; it was simply too overwhelming to consider. Next to Jake, Anna shifted her position; he could feel the heat of her body through his jeans where her leg was pressed against his.

They rumbled on for another mile. “Do you know what happened last night?” Anna asked.

“Last night?” Ernie bent forward and tilted his head sideways so he could see past Jake. “What, with everythin’ gettin’ fried and all, you mean? No, ain’t got a clue.” Settling back in his seat, he shrugged, shifting gear as the old truck struggled up a slight incline in the landscape. “Fact, that’s why I bothered goin’ into town. But it’s the same all over, and nobody knows why.” He concentrated on driving for a short while before continuing, “I got me my own generator, so the blackout didn’t bother me as much as some folk. I was startin’ to run low on propane, though. But the electric came on yesterday morn’.” They’d reached the top of the incline, and Ernie shifted gear again. “Went off again last night, of course, and nothin’s working now. TV, radio, even the generator’s kaput.” He made a noise. “Took the beers from the fridge and put ’em in the cellar; they’ll keep cool there a while.”

“Are you sure everything’s on the fritz?” Jake asked.

“Uh-huh.” One-handed, Ernie wadded a ball of chewing tobacco into his mouth. “Including that Japanese tincan Eddy insisted on buying me. No friggin’ clue what that car’s gotta do with the electric.” He shoved the tobacco into his cheek.”Eddy’s my son. He thinks I’m an old fool, for keepin’ Bess here up and runnin’. Bet he ain’t feelin’ so smug now.” He chuckled again, wryly this time.

Jake puffed out his cheeks as Ernie confirmed his worst fears. He’d kept hoping that he’d jumped to the wrong conclusion; the radio could’ve stopped working for other reasons and, with no power, he hadn’t been able to confirm the coolers and the TV set in the store had truly been fried. Considering what Ernie had told them, though, there was no doubt in his mind. Ernie might not have a clue why his modern car stopped working, but Jake did: the onboard computer chips would be vulnerable to a burst of electromagnetic radiation. And Ernie’s generator might be a newer model, too; they also came equipped with all kinds of electronics to control them.

“Jake thinks it was an EMP.” Anna leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. Jake could feel her tremble.

Ernie darted another look in her direction. “EMP?”

“Electromagnetic pulse,” Jake said. “It’s―.”

Ernie inclined his head, letting Jake know no further explanation was needed. Mulling it over for a minute, he spat out of the window. “Ain’t thought of that yet, but yeah, that’s as good an explanation as any. Makes you wonder, though…” His voice trailed off.

The rest of the journey passed without much of note. Ernie kept up a running commentary, blathering on about the land they were lumbering through and the families who owned it, their prize bulls and famous cows, and who’d married whose cousin. Since he didn’t seem to expect a response, Jake stayed silent, letting Ernie’s words wash over him while his thoughts drifted. He hmm’ed noncommittally whenever the occasion seemed to require it, which apparently satisfied Ernie enough to keep talking. Beside Jake, Anna was gazing out of the window, not speaking, and he could only guess at what was going on in her head.

“A’ight, this is me.” Ernie steered off the road and stopped at the beginning of an unpaved driveway, where dry, yellowed grass divided deep ruts carved into the hard ground. A hundred yards or so further on, a small wooden house, the clapboard painted cream, sagged under the lead sky. “Home sweet home.” He hesitated before turning in his seat until he could meet both Jake and Anna’s eyes. His gaze darted from one to the other. “You’re welcome to stay the night.” He sounded anxiously hopeful as he made the offer, and Jake figured Ernie must be feeling lonely. From Ernie’s rambling, Jake had learned he’d lived alone since his wife had died and his son had gone to San Antonio to join a large law firm, coming to visit once or twice a year to pester his father to sell the property and move to the city.

And it was a tempting offer; spending a night in a bed with a roof over their heads, in a place they were welcome and hadn’t had to break into, appealed to Jake. However, though it was hard to tell with the clouds hiding the sun, it was barely mid-afternoon. They’d have several hours of daylight left and Anna would want to continue on as long as they could. He glanced sideways, silently asking her opinion.

“Let’s go on,” Anna confirmed softly.

“You won’t make Killeen today,” Ernie warned, clearly struggling to hide his disappointment they weren’t staying. “It’s forty miles or thereabouts.”

“That’s okay, we’ll find a place for the night.” Jake slid across the bench to follow Anna out of the truck. He lifted her bags from the back and passed them to her. His own backpack was heavier than he remembered.

“Walk on for four miles, until you get to a T-section.” Ernie had crawled out of the cab too, and was pointing down the road with a gnarled finger. “Take a left, to Rumley. Shortest route on foot.”

“Will do.” Jake wriggled the backpack into place, biting down a groan as the straps tore at his already sore shoulders. “Thanks for the ride.”

“Yes, thank you, Ernie.” Anna briefly pressed the old man’s hand between hers, and he almost seemed shy as he awarded her a pleased grin.

“You’re welcome, sweetheart.” Ernie pinned Jake with a stern look. “You take care o’ her now, you hear?” Not waiting for Jake’s reply, he clambered back into the cab and hit the horn in farewell. Jake raised a hand to wave as the Chevy lumbered up the track toward the house.

Heaving a sigh, Jake turned toward the road, trying to shift the backpack into a more comfortable position “Come on, let’s go.”

“Jake, what the hell is happening?” Anna fell into step beside him.

He reckoned Ernie’s tale was weighing on her, but he had no answers for her. “Let’s hope they can tell us at Fort Hood,” was all he could suggest. And with that, they lapsed into silence and resumed the monotony of walking, until it grew too dark to continue.

o0o

Two days of brisk hiking later, after averaging twenty miles a day, with Anna’s impatience driving them onward, Jake had suggested an early stop. It wasn’t dusk yet, but they’d stumbled across a barn that was empty of livestock and offered a hayloft filled with fresh, sweet-smelling straw. Anna had been reluctant at first but had agreed once Jake told her about the loft. It confirmed his impression: while she was eager to get home, she was as tired as she looked. The way she’d curled up without a word in the blankets, spread into a soft, warm nest in the straw, as soon as they’d had a dinner of carrots and cookies, spoke volumes.

Listening to Anna’s soft breathing slowing and deepening as she drifted off into sleep, Jake repacked the few supplies she’d been carrying into his rucksack. The pack had grown less heavy with every meal they ate, and he was better equipped to carry the load than Anna. Finishing up, he pulled the straps of the pack tight and crawled under his own blanket. It wasn’t fully dark yet, but he was exhausted and glad to be able to lie down and close his eyes. The straw pricked him through his clothes, but compared to the cold, hard ground on which they’d spend the last few nights, it was as soft as a feather bed, and as warm. His last thought before sleep took him was that, if all went as planned, they should reach Fort Hood in the morning.

He woke several hours later, still tired. The night was pitch black and he pricked up his ears, not moving, unsure what had woken him. The scent of hay, undercut with the faint lingering aroma of cow dung, reminded him they were in a barn, a half dozen miles from the army base they were aiming for. The world outside seemed entirely silent. Reassured that they were in no immediate danger, he snuggled deeper under his blanket.

Then Anna whimpered, bringing Jake fully awake, his heart jumping in his throat.

“Anna?” He kept his voice low.

Instead of answering him, she moaned softly, “No… no…”

Jake slowly let the air out of his lungs, relieved that she was simply having a nightmare and not, as he’d first thought, in pain.

Another whimper—and then she sucked in a shuddering gasp and cried out, “Freddy…!”

Jake scrambled around for the flashlight that he’d secured in the straw near his head. He flicked it on as soon as his fingers closed on the hard plastic, and reached over for Anna, a shapeless form under the dark blue airline blanket. He gently shook her. “Anna? Hey, wake up.”

He shook her a second time, with a bit more force. Her eyes popped open, the whites standing out in the dim glow of the flashlight. She blinked up at him blearily, the panic in her expression fading as she slowly focused on his face. “J―Jake?”

“Shh, it’s alright. A bad dream, is all.”

Next thing he knew, she’d hiccuped a sob and flung herself in his arms. Not ready to catch her, he nearly dropped the flashlight. “Jake…” She clung to him tightly, sobbing against his shoulder, the lingering memories of the nightmare apparently so bad that she’d given up trying to maintain the brave face she’d been showing him up until then. “God, Jake, I miss him so much…”

He recoiled at her words as if she’d slapped him. She never noticed, still holding on to him tightly, her hands bunched in his T-shirt. He awkwardly rubbed circles on her back with the palm of his free hand. “I know.” His voice was hoarse.

He held her until her sobs subsided. She wiped her eyes with the heels of her hands, sniffling. “Sorry ’bout that.” She offered him a tremulous smile, fingers scrubbing in vain at the wet spot her tears had left on his shirt.

Jake laid the flashlight in the straw, angling the beam so he could see her face without blinding either of them. “You were having a nightmare…?” It was only half a question; he was afraid she would think he was prying.

She drew up her legs and folded her arms around her knees. “I was dreaming of that night, when Freddy… You know.” She didn’t explain further, only sniffed back another sob.

Further clarification wasn’t necessary: Jake did know. In a way, it was as if it had happened in a different lifetime, when, in reality, it was barely over a week since Freddy had stumbled into Jake’s apartment, bleeding like a pig and begging Jake to take care of Anna and his unborn baby. The memories were still fresh, when he let himself remember, and the pain sharp.

Anna had walked in moments later, before the paramedics Jake had called had arrived. He wished he could’ve spared her the sight of Freddy’s lifeless body lying in a puddle of his own blood. He’d grabbed her and, afraid of Ravenwood and wanting to fulfill the promise he’d made his dying friend, he’d booked them on the first bus out of San Diego, never giving her a chance to say her goodbyes. And now, he didn’t know what to tell her. I’m sorry was so entirely insufficient. Especially since he felt responsible. What if he hadn’t panicked at Hicks’ visit? What if he hadn’t convinced Freddy to cut and run…?

“I never wanted him to take that job.” Anna peered up at him from under her lashes. Jake forced away his own bad memories, focusing on the woman in front of him, her face a pale blur in the glow of the flashlight. “You have to believe that.”

Jake leaned forward to rest a hand on her wrist. “It’s not your fault.” He had to force the words past the lump in his throat. By the time she’d come to his apartment that day, pleading with him to go with Freddy and guilting him into saying yes, by bringing up Iraq after he’d refused, it had already been far too late for Freddy to pull out and tell Ravenwood no.

“I told him not to go, but he said he was doing it for me, and for the baby.” Anna sat up straighter, placing one palm flat on her belly. Jake didn’t think she was aware of doing it. She stared off into the darkness of the barn. “Because he wanted to take care of us. And now―.” Her voice caught. “Jake, I’m scared. The whole world’s gone insane, Freddy’s dead, and I’m on my own with this baby…”

“Hey. Hey.” Jake shifted in the straw until he could drape an arm around her shoulder. He resisted the urge to pull her to him. “Listen, you’re not alone.” He could feel her quiver. “I won’t leave you, and in Houston you’ll have your family to help. Okay?”

He sensed Anna’s slight nod more than he saw it. She rested her head against his shoulder.

“Let’s try to get back to sleep, all right?” Jake inched back down into the straw, pulling Anna with him. Gradually, her shaking grew less, until at last she went limp in his embrace and he could tell she’d drifted back to sleep. He fumbled with his free hand to drag the blankets back over them and switch off the flashlight, staring up at the invisible ceiling for a long time.

Anna’s story had rekindled memories he’d prefer not to have tumbling around in his brain, and the mental turmoil kept him from catching sleep himself. His left arm went numb under Anna’s weight, but at least she was sleeping soundly, no longer plagued by bad dreams. Afraid to wake her, he disengaged from her carefully, swallowing back a hiss as his hand prickled with the blood flowing through it again. He flexed his fingers a few times until the worst of the sting had faded.

The hayloft was suddenly too small, the wooden walls pressing in on him. He started down the ladder from the loft, forcing himself to go slow and test the rungs with his boot soles before letting them take his weight. Last thing he needed was to fall off a damned ladder and break his neck. Once safely on the barn floor, he inched toward the door, feeling his way carefully in the dark, resisting the urge to hurry as everything in him screamed at him to get out. Finally exiting the barn, he drew in a deep breath of cold night air. It smelled of rain.

Striding out into the open field, he stopped and hunkered down a dozen or so yards from the barn, hands dangling between his knees as he took several more deep breaths that made his lungs ache.

He shook his head in an attempt to clear it. How had it come to this? One moment, his greatest concern had been finding a job and paying his rent. The next, his best friend had been murdered, and he was smack in the middle of Texas, responsible for the woman sleeping in the straw behind him and her unborn child. It had seemed a simple promise: take Anna and the baby and get them on the bus.

But then he’d had a moment of panic and thought Ravenwood was tracking them, and he’d gone with her, and then everything had gone to hell, and… He swallowed the groan that bubbled up in his chest and smacked his palms against the dirt. He so wasn’t the right person to handle this.

Puffing out his cheeks and releasing the air slowly in an attempt to get himself under control, he sat flat on the ground, drawing up his knees and folding his arms around them. Not wanting to think of Freddy, he tried to distract himself by thinking ahead to the practicalities that awaited them in the morning. They should reach the military base after a few hours’ walking. By God, he really hoped they’d find the help there they were hoping for. They needed it―he sure as hell did.

He didn’t return to the barn until the first splatters of rain began to land wetly on his face. He was shivering as he crawled back under the blanket—it had been cold outside wearing nothing but a T-shirt—but the straw was warm and welcoming. And the time outside must’ve soothed his fears, because he was soon asleep, for once not waking until Anna did.

o0o

A seven-foot-tall chain link fence marked Fort Hood’s perimeter, blocking the path they were on. The impassable barrier snaked left and right toward the horizon as far as Jake could see, the curled strands of barbed wire strung along the top protecting the base’s grounds from interlopers. The fence was brand new: spotless metal gleaming dully under the slate-gray sky, and no creepers had crawled up the chain links yet.

“Now what do we do?” Anna groused. She’d been miserable ever since they’d woken up. Jake didn’t know if it was on account of the bad dreams and memories or if she wasn’t feeling okay because of the baby. He silently counted to ten. Best to pretend he didn’t hear her sullen tone. He was barely holding on to his own temper as it was. She didn’t deserve him snapping at her for something neither of them could do anything about.

“We follow the fence until we hit a gate.” Without waiting for her reply, he put action to his words, heading south on the narrow dirt road that ran parallel to the fence. There was bound to be an entrance into the base somewhere. If necessary, they’d hike until they reached Killeen and the main gate. Soldiers would be there. People who, hopefully, had answers.

“Hmph.” Behind him, Anna vented her unhappiness with a wordless sound, but soon her feet were catching up with his.

Jake wished he could do something to make her feel better, but without a clear idea of the reason for her current mood, he was afraid any attempt to lift her spirits would only make it worse. Could be she was simply exhausted and as sick of it all as he was; it had been an emotional week for both of them, filled with hard travel instead of the expected day’s bus journey, and yet they still weren’t much closer to their destination.

The rain that had been falling since they set out that morning wasn’t helping, either. Starting with soft drizzle, it had grown steadily worse, and they were huddled in the bright yellow rain capes they’d brought from the gas station. Jake was grateful they’d found them. For all the capes were flimsy plastic sheets and meant for one-time use, they kept them relatively dry―if resembling a pair of drowned garden gnomes, he added silent to himself, attempting to find humor in their situation.

They plodded on through the rain for another hour or so. Under their feet, the road’s surface gradually turned into slippery slush. It was raining even harder now, reaching the point he’d have liked to look for a place to wait out the storm. But the handful of farmers scattered around likely wouldn’t welcome a pair of wet, bedraggled strangers showing up on their doorstep, and this part of Texas consisted of rolling grasslands dotted with low shrubs and bushes. There was no shelter to be had. They had no choice but to go on.

The world around them had stilled, nothing to be heard over the splatter of rain on plastic and their footfalls slapping in the mud. There wasn’t the slightest puff of wind, and branches and leaves drooped beneath the weight of water trickling from them. Jake realized they hadn’t seen a single vehicle, or a trace of one, since Ernest Jackson and his old Chevrolet. In fact, they hadn’t seen anyone except a couple people on horseback further out in the fields the day before. They’d kept their distance and Jake wasn’t sure if they’d even seen him and Anna.

The sight had given him pause, however, as the idea had struck him that perhaps they could find a pair of horses for them to ride. They had the end of Freddy’s cash with them. Would it be all right for a woman in Anna’s stage of pregnancy to ride? Jake wasn’t sure. And when he’d put the question to Anna, she’d told him she’d never been on a horse, so Jake had dismissed the idea altogether, not wanting to risk the trek with an inexperienced rider. If he’d been alone, a horse would’ve offered a damned fine solution. But he wasn’t alone.

In the dull stillness of the featureless landscape, a hulking vehicle coming out of a side road off the base was all the more noticeable, even through the misty rain. The truck angled toward them, closing the distance fast. Jake stopped in his tracks, blinking the water from his eyes and squinting into the gloom. Anna moved up to stand beside him. “I think they’re soldiers.” It was half question, half statement.

The vehicle―Jake recognized the boxy shape of a humvee―had been painted in the desert camouflage tan and browns Jake had grown used to in Iraq. It was odd to see those colors amid the Texas farmlands, but Fort Hood would be making do with whatever vehicles hadn’t stopped running when the EMP hit. Military equipment in general would’ve been ruggedized against electromagnetic surges but not everything would’ve survived. And he reckoned that the military’s response to the first attacks would have been to start pulling back as many troops as they could from overseas. These guys had probably been plucked out of the hot dusty desert of Iraq or Afghanistan less than a week ago.

The humvee pulled to a halt in a spray of mud and a handful of grim-faced soldiers poured out. “Sir, ma’am.” The sergeant who addressed them was courteous. Nevertheless, Jake didn’t miss the fact that the troops kept their distance and were holding their weapons with a tight, tense grip. A cold shiver that had nothing to do with the rain dripping onto his neck raced up his spine; the situation resembled, too closely for comfort, the paranoid atmosphere he recognized from his days in Iraq.

“Sergeant,” Jake acknowledged.

“Sir, I’m gonna have to ask you to turn back to the highway and go ’round.” The sergeant, an older NCO, didn’t beat about the bush. “Road’s closed.”

“Please, sergeant.” Anna shifted her bag and adjusted the rain cape, the material clinging damply to the jacket she had on underneath. “We need help.”

“Sorry, ma’am.” The soldier shook his head. He sounded genuinely remorseful. “There’s a FEMA camp near Austin. You’re best off going there. FEMA’ll give you all the help you need.”

“Austin?” Anna squeaked, horrified. “Sergeant, we―.”

From his peripheral vision, Jake saw the other soldiers shift nervously, their boots squelching in the mud. They slowly moved further apart, until they were forming a half-circle around Jake, Anna and their sergeant, who had pulled up straight and was glaring down at her from under his helmet. “Austin, ma’am. Now, if you’d please go back.”

While his words were respectful, the sergeant’s tone brooked no further argument—but Jake had no intention of them going anywhere near Austin. It’d put them forty or fifty miles out of their way. He also didn’t appreciate having to detour around Fort Hood. If they’d been driving, it wouldn’t have mattered: a twenty mile diversion was less than an hour’s drive. On foot, it’d add a full day to their travel time.

He cleared his throat, drawing the sergeant’s attention away from Anna. “Sergeant, I believe there’s a road turning off from this one a mile further on.” He reached under the plastic coat, fumbling for the map stashed his backpack’s side compartment. The sergeant went rigid, his hand moving to the butt of his gun. Jake froze. He drew his hand out from under the cape slowly and deliberately. The sergeant relaxed a fraction. Encouraged, Jake added, “If you could let us pass, we’ll―.”

“No can do, sir.” The sergeant firmly shook his head. “Road’s closed to all traffic. Fort Hood’s been cordoned off. Governor’s orders.” He looked them up and down. “You’re already trespassing by being here.”

Though the sergeant’s demeanor wasn’t threatening yet, the warning was unmistakable: Jake had better not argue that this track was supposed to be a public road, or that there hadn’t been any warning signs telling him otherwise. The sergeant wouldn’t appreciate it; the man was uptight enough as it was. He obviously wanted them to be gone and to stop being his problem.

And aggravating as it was, Jake had already accepted that they’d do as they were told. But not quite yet. He wanted answers first. “The governor?” That tidbit of information surprised Jake. Fort Hood didn’t station National Guard, did it? This weathered sergeant most definitely wasn’t a National Guardsman. And with the attacks happening in several states at the same time, Jake would have expected the president or the Pentagon to take full command of the nation’s response.

“Governor Todd, yes.” The sergeant gave him an odd, hard stare before releasing a breath. “You don’t know.” It was the first time the man showed any emotion beyond the polite yet firm order for them to turn back.

“Know what?” Jake asked warily, knowing he wasn’t gonna like the sergeant’s answer.

“The president’s dead. Pentagon’s gone.” The sergeant spat angrily. “Hell, the whole of Washington DC’s gone.”

“Oh my God…” Anna whispered in horror. She clutched Jake’s arm, her fingers digging into his flesh through the plastic cape and the material of his jacket.

Jake gaped at the sergeant, mouth open but lost for words. From the quiet way the man had proclaimed you don’t know, Jake had expected the news to be bad, but this? This was―unable to wrap his mind around it, he kept trying to tell himself he’d heard wrong. Yet, everything made more sense: the newly flung-up fence protecting the base, the access road being verboten, the twitchiness of the patrolling soldiers.

“Sir…” The sergeant shifted his grip on his weapon, the momentary show of humanity hidden behind the stern mask of an army NCO again.

“Yeah…,” Jake croaked. He coughed to clear his throat. “Yes, we’re leaving.” He shook Anna’s fingers loose from his arm. “Come on, let’s do as the sergeant tells us.”

“But―,” Anna tried to protest. Jake curled his fingers around her wrist and tugged on her arm, forcing her to take a step after him as he set off in the direction they’d come from.

“You heard the sergeant. We best get going.” He didn’t let up on his grip until he was convinced she’d keep on following him. He walked quickly, wanting to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the soldiers and to reassure the sergeant they were obeying his orders and wouldn’t be trying to sneak back as soon as the patrol had turned its back.

He could sense Anna’s impatience and vexation growing with every step they took, though she managed to hold back from saying anything until they’d put a mile or so between themselves and the suspicious stares of the patrolmen. “Jake, why did you tell that sergeant we’d go back? That’s miles and miles of extra walking. If you’d shown him the map―.”

Jake stopped walking. “Didn’t you see? They were scared. Scared and rattled.” After the sergeant had told them what happened to DC, Jake had figured out what had bothered him about the soldiers from the start. They hadn’t just been extremely cautious to the point of paranoia, like the troops in Iraq had been. No, they’d been terrified. And confused and frightened men holding machine guns were incredibly dangerous: he’d seen what that could lead to… knew what he’d done himself in Saffa. That was why he hadn’t tried to convince the sergeant to allowed them through.

“So?”

Jake forced away the memories that threatened to surface, and concentrated on Anna. Did she really not understand, or did she simply not want to? “Anna, if we’d continued to argue…” It was time he stopped trying to protect her from the worst of the grim realities they faced. “I think they would’ve taken a shot at us.”

Her brows climbed up, her eyes going round with shock. “They wouldn’t. Would they? They’re American soldiers!”

“True.” Jake started walking again. But American or not, those men were soldiers first and foremost. Trained to follow orders, trained to kill. He wiped his brow dry, a useless gesture as the rain was still falling hard. “But they’re American soldiers under attack on their home soil, by God knows who, and clueless as to who’s in charge of them.” The Texan governor stepping into the void was probably the best of all possible outcomes. He went on, “And if they’ve served any time in Iraq, they’ve learned to be extra suspicious of anyone walking up to them with a sob story.” He shot her a look; now that he was no longer mincing his words, he couldn’t seem to stop the harsh explanations. Her face was pale, the yellow plastic giving her a sickly cast. He sighed. “Over there, it could as easily be a suicide bomber as a person truly in need of help.”

“Oh…” Her voice had lost its sharp edge. “But―.”

He halted again and turned toward her. It was important she understood this. “Anna, they aren’t going to take any chances. Nobody will. Not with the way things are now.” The president dead… DC gone… He still had a hard time believing it.

Anna’s shoulders drooped. Rain streamed off her cape in thin rivulets, and she offered him a nod full of contrition. He reached for her hand again. Her skin was cold as he gave her fingers an encouraging squeeze. “We’ll be fine.” He dipped his head to catch her gaze. “Simply takes a little more time. Okay?”

“Okay.” She flashed him an uncertain smile that faded after an instant. “What’s going on, Jake?” she whispered, turning to face him. “What’s happening to us?” She wasn’t just talking about the two of them.

“Honestly?” Jake shrugged. “I don’t know.” With every sliver of information, every piece of the puzzle they’d been handed, the picture that emerged was bleaker and bleaker. He snuck a peek across his shoulder. The soldiers were gone, the muddy road an empty, endless stretch of brown under gray skies that were showing no sign of the storm ever letting up. He rubbed Anna’s hand between his in an attempt to warm it up. “Know what? I think we should make for that barn from last night. It’s not far.” Today was pretty much lost as it was anyway, and at least the barn was dry and warm. “Rest, regroup, decide what to do next. And we can wait out the weather there. Tomorrow, things will look be better, I’m sure.” Anna looked ready to admit defeat, and Jake knew he couldn’t afford to give in to the same despondency.

The wry snort he received in reply demonstrated she’d recognized the lie for what it was: an attempt to raise her spirits. “Getting out of this rain sounds good.”

Reluctantly, he dropped her hand and they started to retrace their steps and trudge back to the barn.

o0o

Chapter 8

In the week that followed, the days strung together like beads on a string, each similar to the next. Jake and Anna settled into a routine that required little or no mental energy: wake up at dawn―Jake usually before Anna; eat a quick breakfast of whatever provisions they’d scrounged together; break camp; and set out. At midday, they paused for a small meal and to rest their weary feet, but never for long: they soon picked themselves back up to go on. It was never a point of discussion; they were both eager to put as much distance into the day as they reasonably could. They didn’t talk much as they plodded on, reserving their energy for putting one foot in front of the other.

Near sunset, they’d search for shelter for the night, occasionally getting lucky and stumbling upon a barn or a shed. Other times, they were less fortunate and had to sleep under the open skies. It didn’t ever rain as often or as long as it had on the day the soldiers at Fort Hood had turned them away, but it stayed overcast. Most days, they never saw the sun at all and could only tell the end of the day was coming because the light darkened from slate gray to deep gray to black.

The land around them gradually changed. The wild and not very populated country of mid-Texas made way for cultivated fields in a gently rolling landscape. Farms and scattered homesteads became more numerous; while most owners would rather see them go than come, it made it easier to get hold of provisions: food, fresh water to drink. Now and then, a farmer would let them bunk overnight in his barn, or wash up at an outdoor tap.

Every night, Jake checked their progress against the map. They averaged twenty miles a day, more on good days, less on days that the weather was bad or Anna suffered from morning sickness. They even risked accepting the occasional short ride from people visiting neighbors, in ancient trucks and, once, a horse-drawn cart.

It was hard going and seven days of steady marching later, they were a hundred miles from Houston―five or six days left to go, Jake reckoned. The sun was finally coming out, but everything was damp: their clothes, their boots, their bags. Jake had tried to light a fire once or twice, using their precious matches, but there was little firewood to be found and what they did manage to collect was often wet and soggy, smoldering smokily and not providing actual heat.

This morning, for the first time in days, blue patches had shown among the clouds. It was superstitious to think it, but Jake took it as a good omen. By midday, when Jake called for their usual short break, blue outweighed white in the sky.

Dropping the backpack onto a flat, grassy piece of land, he made sure it was standing securely and then settled himself down in front of it, leaning his back against it. Anna followed his example, flopping down in the grass beside Jake. Resting on her elbows, she lifted her face up to the sun, soaking in the warm rays and letting out a contented sigh.

Jake snuck a glance at her. Over the past two weeks, she’d lost the slight plumpness she’d had. He’d lost weight too and they’d both suffered from blisters that, once broken, had turned into calloused hard spots on their soles. But though it had been a taxing couple of weeks, they’d survived so far. With their increasing experience of living off the land, Jake was confident they’d manage the last part of their journey at the same speed as the past week. They’d need patience, and stamina, but in the end, they’d get there.

Digging through his backpack, he asked, “You want the last apple?” He fished it out from among their supplies. It was a wrinkly thing, very different from the round, shiny red apples they’d once―not that long ago but the memory seemed dim―been able to buy in grocery stores and supermarkets all over the country.

“Thanks.” Anna accepted the piece of fruit without offering to share it with him; she knew he’d refuse. He’d made sure she got the larger portion of the fresh fruits and vegetables they’d gathered from the fields and orchards, only eating any of it when they had plenty. Biting off a piece from the apple, she grimaced, squeezing her eyes closed. Jake reckoned the fruit tasted as bad as it had looked. But it was sustenance and vitamins, so she chewed bravely and swallowed. “We should get to Somerville Lake soon, right?”

Jake no longer needed the map. He’d studied their route so often, he could draw Texas in detail in his sleep. “Just a mile or two.”

“Perhaps we can buy some provisions in town. When I was a kid, my grandparents would take us camping there during summer vacation, by the lake.” Anna took another bite of the apple, chewing in silence until she could swallow. “Me and my sisters, we’d go swimming, while Gramps tried to catch fish for dinner.” She chuckled softly. “He always said we chased away his bass.” She finished with the apple, and, as she did every time they ate apples or other fruit, scooped out a small hole in the dirt near the road. Satisfied with the hole, she dropped the core into it and swept the dirt over it, packing it tight with the flat of her hand. Jake smiled to himself as he watched her.

“Anyway,” Anna carried on speaking, unaware of Jake’s amusement, “before we went home, my grandmother always got fresh produce from a local farmer’s market.” She licked her lips. “Grammie could bake the best fruit pies.”

Jake’s mouth watered at the mention of pie. “Mmm.” He leaned further into the backpack, relaxing. “In Jericho, my mom’s blueberry pie was famous.” He uttered a rueful laugh. “I’d love to have a slice of her pie right about now. Or a burger.” He could imagine the taste of the beef. “I could go for a nice, juicy cheeseburger with fries.”

Anna scrunched up her nose in disgust. “Ew, no, thanks.”

“You wouldn’t want that? What would you want?” Jake sat up; it was nice to lie here in the sun and dream of food, but it wouldn’t get them any closer to their destination. “Lemme guess.” He smirked. “Pickles with ice cream?”

Anna snorted with laughter. “Oh, shut up.” She slapped his arm lightly as he offered her his hand to help her back to her feet. “That’s so cliché.” She paused, her eyes gaining a distant look. “To be honest, the ice cream, I’d kill for. You can keep the pickles.”

Jake chuckled. He leaned down to close the backpack’s flap and buckle it. “After we get to Houston,” he straightened and lifted the pack onto his shoulders, “I’ll buy you the biggest banana split I can find, okay?”

She grinned at him. “Deal.”

Somerville proved a friendlier town than many of the small settlements they been forced to pass through. In fact, the place reminded Jake of Jericho, with its white church and neatly paved Main Street. He quickly buried the sharp pang of homesickness the similarities provoked. Where Somerville differed from Jericho was in the half dozen bars, two diners, and several sports shops specializing in water sports that no doubt owed their existence to the proximity of the nearby lake. Faded posters stapled to telephone poles announced a bass angling contest that had been held in July, and a town fair that would’ve taken place in August.

Today there were no tourists, and under the watery October sun, Somerville dozed uneasily. Jake could count the people they saw as they walked along Main Street on the fingers of one hand. The farmer’s market Anna had mentioned was no longer in business, and every store they passed was closed up tight. His cheerfulness evaporated: he didn’t think they’d find any provisions in this town.

He was quickly proven wrong. Near the southern town limit, with a wooden Leaving Somerville sign already visible up ahead, a stall of rough-hewn planks had been erected at the end of a driveway leading up to a small ranch house set fifty yards from the road. A handwritten cardboard sign announced fruits and vegetables for sale, “straight from the garden”.

They crossed the road to see what was on offer. Jake would have happily taken whatever fresh produce was available; the time to be fastidious was long since gone.

“Howdy! A very good morning to you.” The woman who’d scurried from the house at their approach, greeted them cheerfully. She carried a toddler on her hip. Jake presumed she was the ranch’s owner, or his wife. “What can I get you folks?” She set the child, a boy of perhaps two years old, carefully on his feet.

Jake hesitated, his gaze roving over the boxes and crates of peaches, squash, cucumbers, cantaloupes and several other kinds of fruits. If he were totally honest, most of it was starting to appear a tad overripe even to his inexperienced eye, as if it’d been on display longer than it should have been. Late bees and flies, drawn by the sickly-sweet smell of ripe fruit, were buzzing around the stall. He wasn’t picky, but they really needed food he could carry and something that wouldn’t spoil overnight.

“A half dozen of the peaches, please,” Anna told the woman.

“Sure thing, darlin’.” The seller selected six of the peaches and put them in a paper bag. “We don’t get many people no more,” she said, frowning to herself as she picked a pair of bruised peaches from the stack on the table and put them to one side. “Fruit’s gonna go waste before we can sell it. Real shame, ’cause these are the sweetest peaches you’ll ever eat.”

Anna tapped a cantaloupe gently with her knuckles. Dismissing it, she tested a second one, before picking it up and holding it out to the woman to put in a bag. “And this one.” She glanced sideways at Jake. “If you can take that…?”

“No problem.” He’d have to rearrange the items in the backpack to make room, but he’d make it fit. “Get half a dozen of the apples, too.” They were less vulnerable, and he could use those to fill in the small holes that inevitably formed no matter how carefully he tried to pack everything tightly together.

“Okay.” Despite his offer, Anna’s brows curved in frustration that she couldn’t buy more. She hadn’t been too comfortable with being forced to forage for edibles in people’s yards, but her desire to acquire as much as possible legitimately clashed with the practical consideration that whatever they bought, they’d have to carry it on their own backs until they were ready to eat it.

“Here ya go.” The woman offered Anna the paper sack with the peaches. Anna accepted them and set her own bag onto the surface of the seller’s table so that she could stow the sack away on top without squashing the fruit. The woman popped the cantaloupe into another bag and began to shake out a third one for the apples. “Oi, Jason!” Her hands stilled as she became distracted. “Stay close, sweetie.”

Her son had trundled off, tiny sneakers kicking up small clods of dirt with each wobbly step. The boy ignored his mother’s call and trotted further up the road. He tripped over his own feet, and Jake held his breath, fully expecting the child to face-plant in the dirt, but Jason regained his balance and happily kept going on his unsteady legs.

“Sorry ’bout that.” Jason’s mother made to put down the bag she was holding , to go after the boy.

“I’ll get him.” Anna jogged after the little boy, who was quicksilver fast despite his short, stubby legs. She caught up with him and knelt in front of him, bringing him to a stop. He cocked his head and peered up at her curiously, giggling at something Anna said.

The seller watched the boy with Anna and smiled at Jake, before bagging the apples he’d asked for. “That’ll be―.”

“We’ll have another bag of those peaches,” Jake said quickly, before she could finish. “If you’ve got something for me to carry them in?” There was no telling when, or even if, they’d find such a treasure trove of fresh produce, and they had another week until they’d reach Houston. He’d make space in the backpack after they stopped for the night and had dinner. Until then, he could carry the extra supplies in his hand.

“Sure enough!” The woman grinned at him happily, clearly glad they were taking her aging crop off her hands, and she started filling a new sack. “So, where’re you folks goin’?”

Jake watched her carefully selecting the firmest of the peaches. “Houston.” They’d generally been careful about not telling strangers their exact plans, but the woman’s friendly manner had made Jake lower his guard.

The second the name dropped from his lips, the woman’s open smile dissolved, and her face assumed an unhappy expression. Jake instantly tensed, watching her guardedly.

“You shouldn’t go to Houston,” she told him matter-of-factly.

Jake eyebrows shot up; it wasn’t what he’d expected her to say. “Why not?”

“There’s nobody there. FEMA evacuated everyone from Houston, and from a large area around the city.” She paused in packing fruit. “They say the water’s radioactive.” There was a tiny quiver in her voice, demonstrating her instinctive fear of things she couldn’t see, couldn’t smell and couldn’t taste.

“The radiation came all this way from Dallas?” That couldn’t be right, could it? Houston was hundreds of miles from the original blast they’d witnessed. And if Houston was not far enough to be safe, if it was true what the woman said… Cold to his core, Jake forced himself not to dwell on how he and Anna had been eating off the land for the past two weeks. Avoiding thinking about it wouldn’t change the facts, but he wasn’t ready to face them. He certainly didn’t want Anna to know. She was afraid enough for her baby’s health without him adding any more reasons.

“No, not from Dallas.” The fruit seller put the last peach into the paper bag and carefully folded the top. “From Houston.” She looked up. “It got attacked, too.”

For a long minute, Jake found himself speechless. “Are you sure?” If Houston was gone—. He flashed back to Ernest Jackson, the old man who had given them a ride. Jackson had used the word clouds, plural, sounding as if he’d witnessed them with his own eyes. At the time, Jake had pretended not to notice and hadn’t asked for clarification. He’d simply told himself Ernie was repeating the same rumors as the sheriff in Vernon had.

“Yes,” the woman confirmed with a dip of her head. “Same time as Dallas, and―and all those other cities.” She shivered, rubbing her hands up and down her arms. “It’s terrible what happened, isn’t it?”

Wordlessly, Jake looked over at Anna. She was still kneeling and talking to Jason, who was showing her a wildflower he’d picked from the grass at the edge of the road. Jake’s chest tightened. How was he going to break the news to her? She’d been so eager to get home and she’d be devastated to learn it was gone. And her parents, they might be dead, too.

If only Jake had been less of a fool, refusing to admit the truth when it had already been staring him in the face. Because, two days ago, he’d picked up a soggy flyer lying by the side of the road. Despite the runny ink, he’d been able to make out the text. It was a FEMA message, announcing a mandatory evacuation. The flyer had said the water table had been contaminated and had ordered everyone to leave. At the time, Jake had convinced himself the piece of paper had been blown south from Dallas and he’d crumpled it up and thrown it away before Anna could see it. Had that self-delusion come back to bite him in the ass?

The seller had finished packing up their purchases and was offering him the plastic bag filled with fruit. He gave a start, having forgotten the woman. Automatically, his mind still reeling from what she’d told him, he reached for his wallet.

“No, that’s okay.” The woman waved his money away. “Take it, or it’ll only go to waste.” She directed her attention toward Anna and Jason. “Jason? Come to Mommy, sweetie.” This time, the boy listened. He came toddling up as fast as his stubby legs could carry him. Anna followed him more slowly.

“Are you safe here?” Jake asked the seller while they waited for Jason and Anna to reach them. He squinted warily at the bag of fruit he was holding. Was it safe to eat? What if―?

The woman bent and lifted her son up on her hip.”We got lucky. Winds from the west, and they say we’re on a different ground water reservoir.” She huffed a wry laugh. “Never knew that. The FEMA folks say we’re all right here.” She flicked a finger lightly against her son’s nose, and the boy crowed with delight. “They’ve set up a camp near Austin. They took everyone there.”

“We heard about Austin.” The soldiers at Fort Hood had also mentioned the refugee camp and suggested they go there. If Jake had known then what he knew now, he might have made a different decision.

The woman’s eyes stayed on them as Jake and Anna walked away, continuing on down the road to the southeast. It was no longer the direction they should go, but Jake was still gathering up the courage to tell Anna what he’d learned. He dreaded her reaction.

“Such a sweet little kid.” Anna twisted around to walk backward a step or two so she could wave at Jason and his mother. Sounding wistful, she added, “I hope I’ll have a boy too. One that has Freddy’s eyes.”

“What?” For an instant, Jake had no clue what she was talking about, his own thoughts a world apart from hers. He hated having to spoil her mood. But he had to tell her the truth. “Anna…” He swallowed, heart thumping, and eyed her sideways.

His tone must’ve warned her and her smile melted. “Jake? What’s wrong?”

“When… when you were talking to the boy, his mother told me something.” Again, Jake paused, a lump catching in his throat, making it hard to tell her the rest. He’d have given anything not to have to tell Anna this.

“What? Jake, you’re scaring me.”

“I’m sorry.” He stopped walking, turning to face Anna fully. There was no way to lessen the impact, so he told her softly, “Houston was attacked, too. It’s gone. The whole area has been evacuated.”

Her complexion turned white as a sheet, and she swayed on her feet as she stared back at him, frozen in place. For an instant, Jake thought she was going to faint and he got ready to catch her.

“No.” Anna gulped in a hiccupy breath. “No. I don’t believe you. It’s not true.” She swung away from Jake and marched on, her back ramrod straight, her steps jittery and mechanical, like those of a wound-up toy.

“Anna…”

She ignored him. Jake jogged to catch up with her, the backpack bouncing awkwardly on his shoulders. “Anna, please, stop.” He took her arm, but she tore herself free. He sighed. “Please, listen. We should go to Austin, to the camp there. We―.”

“No, Jake. No.” She whirled on him. Red splotches colored her cheeks and her eyes were dark. He could see the agony in them. “I’m done listening to you. You can go to Austin. I’m going home.”

Again, Jake reached for her, and again she twisted out of his grip and strode on, clipped and angry. Running his fingers through his hair, Jake watched her go. What was he supposed to do? She wasn’t going to listen to reason. Not yet. Maybe never.

He tried to imagine how he’d have reacted if he’d been told Jericho had been nuked off the face of the earth, and he couldn’t. It was simply beyond his imagination. He did know he couldn’t let Anna go on alone. He’d made a promise he intended to keep, no matter what—even if she was determined to march right into the wasteland that had once been Houston.

Scratching his neck and hoisting the backpack higher onto his shoulders, he followed behind. He didn’t try to catch up with her. In her current state, she wouldn’t take well to him trying to argue with her further. He made sure he stayed close enough to watch out for her, though, if not so close she’d feel crowded. His only hope was that her common sense would overcome her grief sooner rather than later.

o0o

For the next hour, Anna kept walking ahead of Jake, her body rigid and tense. From time to time she surreptitiously wiped her eyes and Jake reckoned she was crying. He hated that, hated seeing her in pain, hated there was nothing he could tell her that would make it better. In helpless frustration, he curled his hands into fists as he trudged after her, matching her angry pace and waiting for her to run out of steam. It wasn’t his fault, but he couldn’t stop feeling like he was failing Freddy.

Yellow police tape strung across the road several miles past Somerville finally forced Anna to stop. The sun was getting low in the sky, its watery glare bouncing off of a printed poster stapled to the trunk of the nearest tree. Contamination zone, the sign said in bold, black capitals, underlined with red, advising everyone that the area they were passing into had been evacuated. It also warned that access was forbidden by order of the governor of Texas and suggested in smaller print that refugees make for Austin or San Antonio to get assistance from one of the FEMA-run camps.

Reaching the obstruction, Anna stood fiddling with the tape, as if she didn’t understand what it was doing there. Jake quickly drew level with her. “Anna?”

She blinked up at him miserably, her eyes bloodshot and glimmering with unshed tears. “Why?” she whispered. “Why is this happening?”

Jake had no answer and in lieu of a reply, he pulled her to him, hoping to offer her comfort through his presence. To his relief, she had apparently exhausted her anger, and she allowed him to hold her as sobs racked her. He didn’t track how long they stood together, Anna crying wretchedly and him blinking furiously against the sting in his own eyes. At last, cried out for the time being, she straightened and wiped at her nose with the back of her hand.

Jake readjusted the backpack that had slipped to hang at an awkward angle while he held her. “You okay?” As soon as he gave voice to the question, he wanted to smack himself. Of course she wasn’t; she was as far from okay as was possible.

She sniffled another sob, giving him a quick nod. He wanted to hug her again; she had to be one of the bravest women he’d ever met.

Suppressing the urge to pull her back against him, he suggested gently, “We should go back. Head for Austin, to that FEMA camp.”

“No, I want to go on.” Anna’s voice as she stared down the road beyond the tape barrier was so soft Jake could barely catch the words.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Jake frowned, concerned. “We don’t know how far the radiation has spread.”

She looked at him over her shoulder. He was shocked to see the desolation in her features. Her eyes were empty. “You don’t have to come.” Her voice was toneless, and her words held none of the ferocity of earlier. Jake wasn’t sure which was worse: the naked pain and anger, or this numbness.

“I’m not abandoning you.” He huffed quietly. “It’s just… it could be dangerous to go on. Not only for us, but… Anna, you have the baby to think about.”

“I know.” She put a hand on her still-flat stomach protectively. “But…” She reached for the tape, her fingers curling around it. “Jake, I need to see.”

Jake hesitated, the urge to indulge her warring with the compulsion to protect her.

He took another look at the land beyond the tape. It didn’t look any different from the terrain they’d passed through: undulating gently, the grass brittle from the summer’s drought, and the muddy dirt road drying to dust under the sun. But you couldn’t see radiation. For all he knew, that pale grass and dirt could be red hot with fall-out from Houston, slowly leeching the life out of every living thing that came near it. The authorities had presumably evacuated the area with good reason. And hadn’t the woman who sold them the fruit mentioned that the water table had been contaminated too?

On the other hand, Jake could understand Anna’s drive to confirm with her own eyes what she’d been told. For weeks, getting home to Houston had been the reward beckoning on the horizon, the single thing that had kept her going despite the hardships of their journey. To have that purpose taken away so abruptly would have been devastating in itself. To think that her family might be gone as well defied all imagination.

He took his water bottle from his backpack, buying time by taking a sip before offering the bottle to Anna. Common sense dictated the authorities would’ve played it safe and had FEMA evacuate a far wider area than was strictly necessary. And the damage from radiation accumulated gradually over long-term exposure, while they wouldn’t need to forage in the contaminated zone for several days: they were fully stocked with food and water. Jake didn’t plan on staying that long. As long as they were careful, he didn’t think they’d be in any immediate danger.

He also hoped that, by giving her time, she’d come to understand that going to a devastated and abandoned Houston wasn’t a smart plan. They’d stop for the night soon; if necessary, he’d take a fresh shot at convincing her of the futility of her plan while they rested.

“Okay,” he relented, acknowledging that he wouldn’t be able to convince her otherwise at this point and that, short of carrying her off, he had no other choice. He called up the mental image of the map of Texas etched into his brain. The next town along the road they were on would be Brenham. It was a bigger town, with several roads leading back west toward Austin. They could change course there without having gone too far out of their way. “We’ll go on for a while longer.”

“Thank you.” The tremulous, fleeting half-smile of gratitude she offered him caused his heart to flutter. Trying not to feel too pleased, he raised the tape as far as it would go. Anna ducked underneath it and he followed her, letting go of the tape as soon as he was clear on the other side.

o0o

If Jake had considered the terrain they’d been traveling through up to then to be empty, the evacuated region surrounding Houston gave him a whole new appreciation for the concept of abandoned. Though they’d hardly seen a living soul in the past weeks, he quickly came to understand that his subconscious had reflexively picked up the telltale signs of habitation: the smell of smoke from a distant hearth, a silhouette spotted on the horizon, the echoed thwack of an ax hitting wood.

In the evacuated area, the lack of human noise was conspicuous by its absence and the sounds of nature punctuated the unnatural silence: birds chirping, small animals rustling in the grass, insects buzzing in the sunlight. The occasional homes visible from the road were all boarded up, lawns yellowing and fall blooms withering in the flower beds.

Anna stopped in front of the fourth or fifth such place, a simple ranch house with a double garage and a wide, empty driveway. A kid’s bright-red tricycle lay abandoned in the yard, forgotten in the parents’ haste to get away. Jake paused as well, shooting her a curious glance as she raised a hand to shield her eyes against the sun. “Do you know what those signs mean?”

As with the other houses they’d walked past, the front door had been spray-painted with glow-in-the-dark orange markings. Glad to see Anna taking an interest in her surroundings again, Jake studied the roughly painted symbols. Numbers filled the four quadrants created by a rough X: a date at the top, agency responsible for making the marks on the left. “These homes were evacuated ten-three by FEMA. Eight days ago.” Two days after the EMP, he calculated. He took it as a positive sign FEMA had been up and running after that.

“And the other numbers?” She was talking about the four at the bottom and the zero in the right quadrant.

“How many people they moved, and,” Jake hesitated, “how many people they found dead.”

“Oh.”

Realizing she wouldn’t know which was which, he added, “They evacuated four people from this house. I’m guessing it was a family.” The kid’s bike was a dead giveaway. “They were all fine.”

Anna stared at the house for a minute longer, while Jake thought about how the numbers on the doors wouldn’t remain so positive the closer they got to Houston and the deeper into the fall-out zone. Now she was able to read the symbols, he hoped she’d change her mind about hiking on before they got that far. He didn’t want her to have to see that.

The road was flat and straight, and it made for easy walking. Anna’s angry pace had slowed to a speed they could both sustain without much effort and they reached Brenham as the sun was clipping the horizon. The town would offer them some kind of shelter for the night, perhaps a garage or an office lobby. Jake didn’t fancy breaking in to a vacated home unless he absolutely had to.

As they made for the center, Jake discovered the town wasn’t as abandoned as he’d expected. He could hear engines grumbling in the distance and, far off, voices were shouting, the words unintelligible. He tensed up instantly: Brenham was some way inside the evacuation zone and it should’ve been deserted. Anyone still around would likely be hostile to strangers. He stopped walking, cocking his head to determine where the sounds came from, and what would be their best exit route.

Anna didn’t interpret the presence of other people the same way Jake did; rather than being concerned, she reacted with relief. “There’s people here.” Jake wanted to caution her against being too optimistic. Before he could say anything, a brief burst of a staccato rattle that was all too familiar reverberated through the quiet streets. His heart dropped into his stomach.

“Dammit!” he swore out loud. That was machine gun fire! What the hell had they walked into? The solitude of the evacuated surroundings had lured him into letting his guard down, thinking they were alone and that the greatest danger came from the unseen radiation. Way to keep your eye on the ball, Jake. He took Anna’s elbow. “We gotta get out of here,” he urged. No matter whether they wanted to veer west to Austin or maintain course for Houston, they should circle around the town and stay well clear of whoever it was firing off automatic weapons.

“What? Why?” Anna hadn’t recognized the rattling for what it was―and why would she?

Jake pointed with his chin at where the noise had originated from. “That was gun fire.” He couldn’t help feel a trace of grim satisfaction at seeing her grow pale under her faint tan. “Come on.” He didn’t think she’d argue with him this time.

They didn’t manage to retrace their tracks more than a dozen paces before a voice called out, “Hey, you two!”

Jake’s hand involuntarily flew to the Ruger in his belt as he turned at the sound of the hail. He’d used the weapon once since he’d found it, and that was to shoot a rabbit they’d startled―which they’d subsequently been unable to prepare because they hadn’t been able to get a fire going. He hadn’t repeated the experiment.

Even as his fingers closed around the butt of the gun, Jake already knew it was too late to run. The guy who’d hailed them, now trotting toward them, wielded an M4. A second guy who was similarly armed followed on his heels.

“Hands where I can see them!” the first guy ordered.

One look at their weapons and the cold detachment on their faces told Jake he’d better do as they said. Letting go of the Ruger, he held his hands out, palms flat.

“Who are they?” Anna whispered. “Soldiers?”

“I wish.” With the M4s they were holding, and their black shirts, camouflage cargoes and flack jackets, the men resembled the military sufficiently to be mistaken for army troops. “They’re Ravenwood.” Jake only needed a brief glimpse of the red-and-yellow patch on their chest to confirm what he already suspected.

Anna drew in a sharp, shocked breath. “Oh God…”

“Stay calm,” he hissed at her quietly, while plastering what he hoped was a guileless expression onto his face. “They’re not after us, I think.” Not specifically, at least. He just hoped Ravenwood was in Brenham on legitimate business, and that he and Anna hadn’t stumbled onto a rogue squad plundering the abandoned town. He’d heard enough whispered stories in Iraq to consider it a distinct possibility. And even then, it’d be a toss up whether they’d let him and Anna go unharmed or decide they couldn’t afford any witnesses. The gunfire wasn’t making him feel confident, but he did his best not to show any of the thoughts tumbling through his mind.

“What d’you think you’re doing?” The Ravenwood guys had reached them. The second stayed several yards back, covering them with his gun, while his partner quickly patted Jake down. Discovering the Ruger, he wrenched it from Jake’s belt. He looked Jake up and down. “Sure as hell hope you two aren’t breaking into these people’s homes…”

Jake grimaced inwardly at the irony of Ravenwood accusing them of being thieves while he tried not to let them see his anxiety. These guys thrived on fear, and if they found out who he and Anna were… He didn’t know if Ravenwood was still interested in them, considering everything that had happened to the country, but they could be vindictive, and he wasn’t going to take any chances. He offered what he hoped was shocked indignation. “Breaking in? Of course not.” He frowned in fake confusion. “We’re trying to get to Houston, been walking for weeks.” Sometimes, the truth worked better than any lie.

“Houston’s off limits.” The Ravenwood trooper inspected Jake’s Ruger, checked the safety was on, and gave a satisfied nod before stashing it in his own belt. “I’ll hold on to this for you. No private guns allowed. Safety regulations, ya see.”

Jake suppressed a snort, knowing the futility of bringing up the Second Amendment. He’d never see the weapon again. A shame, really; it had been a nice gun. And being bereft of it made him feel naked and vulnerable, especially while confronting a pair of mercenaries. All they had left now was the flare gun, hidden deep in Anna’s bags.

“You’ll have to come with us. Both of you.” The second Ravenwood man spoke for the first time, gesturing with his M4. He’d lowered it a fraction after his comrade had disarmed Jake, but he remained wary and ready to shoot at a moment’s notice. “Area’s been evacuated. We’re rounding up the stragglers; nobody’s allowed to stay behind.”

It sounded plausible enough. But who or what had they been shooting at if they were supposed to be collecting evacuees? Catching thieves in the act was one possibility, but this was Ravenwood, and they were a trigger-happy bunch. They didn’t always need an excuse. Jake pushed the thoughts away; it was out of his hands and all they could do was obey and hope the mercenaries were telling the truth.

Encouraged by an impatient wave of a muzzle, he and Anna started walking. “Where are you taking us?”

The Ravenwood guys trod on their heels as they escorted them deeper into the town center. “FEMA camp.”

The answer was brusque, though less hostile than Jake would’ve expected. In fact, he hadn’t expected an answer at all.

Their escort took them to the town square. Two military flatbed trucks stood in the center and Jake and Anna were directed toward them. Figures were moving around under the camouflaged awnings covering the truck beds, passing suitcases and satchels to those further back. Behind the trucks and on either side, other people were milling around. Jake saw FEMA shirts as well as Ravenwood uniforms and the tightness in his chest let up: the Ravenwood guys had told the truth.

“Come on, quickly now.” One of the FEMA staff, a middle-aged, harried-looking woman urged him and Anna to climb into the nearest truck. A dozen or so people, with their belongings, were already settled on the benches running along the sides. “Don’t worry, we’ll have you safe soon enough, with a bed and a warm shower.” She turned away, not giving either of them opportunity to ask any questions.

The others in the trucks looked at them curiously as they clambered in, obviously recognizing them as not from Brenham. Jake ignored them as he squeezed onto the narrow bench between Anna and the next person, who grudgingly surrendered an inch of space. Putting his backpack between his feet, where he’d be able to keep it upright with his legs, Jake leaned toward Anna. “Sorry ’bout this.” He couldn’t say he regretted being rounded up and taken to a FEMA camp. He only wished they hadn’t run into any Ravenwood personnel.

Anna shrugged in response. She folded her arms around the bag she was holding in her lap. “This is for the best, I guess,” she muttered. “You were right. I shouldn’t have insisted we go on.” She sounded defeated, beaten. He wanted to ask if she was all right but the driver started the truck, and the engine’s roar made it hard to be heard without shouting. They set off with a lurch, and Anna grabbed Jake to keep from falling off the end of the bench. Wrapping an arm around her shoulders, Jake settled in for the ride, Anna warm and soft against him.

Go to Part 2.

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