I wasn’t surprised that Bennie didn’t put up a fuss. His dad died when he was little in some kind of construction accident and his step dad kicked him out of the house the day he turned 18. His mom was OK from what I had heard but they weren’t especially close.
“Kentucky,” I finally answered him.
“You mean like the Bourbon?”
I snorted. “Yeah Bennie, like the Bourbon. Come on man … are you a teacher or what? Didn’t you have to learn a little geography to get your certificate?”
“No,” he answered. “Just how to keep the kids from tearing up the classroom and making enough of a nuisance out of themselves we’d be forced to call a resource officer.”
“Geez ain’t that depressing. Let’s just get on the road.”
“What about … ?” he asked nodding his chin towards the body.
“What about what?” I asked with an innocent look on my face. “I don’t see nothin’. We haven’t touched nothin’. And in fact, if you wipe the door off where you touched it then it can’t even be proved we were ever here to begin with.” Bennie gave me a hard look making me feel defensive. “OK, I’ll go all girly at some point and cry for the poor slob but not right now; I’ve got too much on my plate as it is. He was a thief Bennie … or at least a wannabe thief. I didn’t make him fall through that ceiling, he chose to be up there where he didn’t belong. And if he had gotten in here I don’t know how we would get out of the city. I’ll light a candle for him later and pay penance for being such a cold witch, right now we just need to get gone.”
Bennie didn’t say anything and I stepped out into the parking garage proper to have a look around and to get away from my own guilty feelings. I just knew I couldn’t show weakness, not if Bennie saw me as “the boss.” He was willing to follow me this far but if he started questioning things he couldn’t cause me serious problems.
I looked over the edge and listened. The silence of a city in shock was beginning to wear off and turn to one in panic. I could hear sirens and gun fire but the way they echoed on the buildings around us told me they were some ways off. Bennie finished pushing the truck out and asked, “You want I should drive?”
“No,” I told him as I headed for the driver’s door. “I’m fairly certain I know where we are and I’ve had to fight Atlanta rush hour traffic enough going home that I can get us out of here without using the interstate.”
I pulled the truck out and Bennie closed and locked everything behind us, wiping things down for good measure just like I said. Suddenly he rushed over and jumped in pulling the gun out of where he’d stashed it. “Go Joey! We got company.”
Glancing into the side view mirror I saw a bunch of young men running our way and I floored it, nearly fishtailing into a pillar as I flew down the exit ramp. We hadn’t been long but the city had changed and looked … and sounded … like it was beginning to fall apart quickly as inhibitions gave way to animal instincts. Lucia who had taken my ipad out and started surfing was listing off the names of the cities that had been attacked. “And CNN just posted that the Atlanta airport is burning from a plane that came down and slid into a bunch of other parked planes. We musta got out just in time!”
Bennie turned on the radio and the babble of overexcited news people was a background to my heart thudding in my throat as I busted every speed limit and ignored every road sign trying to avoid and escape the lunacy going on at nearly every turn. It wasn’t the zombie apocalypse – I could have understood the craziness better if it had been – but people were beginning to act like it was.
“Geez!!” Bennie shouted as a bottle smashed against and nearly took out the windshield. “What was that kid’s problem?! He couldn’t a been more than ten years old!”
“Joey, I keep losing the signal! I’m trying to reach all my friends! You’ve got to go easier or I’ll never get through.”
I slammed on the brakes. “Lucia,” I said with deadly calm. “Give me my ipad.”
“Why?” she whined, hugging it close to her chest.
I reached over and wrenched it away from her, read over her posts on facebook and then tucked it out of her reach. “Lucia, I don’t want half the country to follow us to the cabin.”
“I wouldn’t say anything!”
I put the truck back in gear and took off again as I told her, “You haven’t yet but that doesn’t mean you might not let something slip accidentally. This is no game! I don’t know how bad things really are but they’re bad enough that martial law has been declared on a national level and that they are calling up everybody that isn’t already on active duty. They’re bad enough that Tony is leaving all his business and taking our families to the cabin.” After a brief pause I added, “They’re bad enough that they’ve already closed the bridges and tunnels.”
I didn’t need to explain which ones. “How do you know this?” Lucia asked, refusing to believe me, refusing to believe they’d simply cut the island off like that.
“I heard something Tony let slip. He was going to try and get the family away by water before that route was closed too. We have to trust that he pulled it off. And we have to do what we have to do. It … it will probably get worse before it gets better.” My comment put a kibosh on any more conversation.
It wasn’t easy but I finally wove us out of Atlanta proper and then headed towards my family’s property. When my dad began looking for a retirement property, he wanted one that was close enough to his roots without being too close to the extended family. He wanted it attractive to him and Mom but not to potential visitors. After several years he finally found such a place near an old coal mining community.
The first time Mom actually saw the place in person she broke down in tears. The house wasn’t even wired for modern appliances and the animal smell was so powerful we all ran outside gagging. Somehow Dad talked her around and when all the work was finished on it even Lucia had to admit it had turned into a nice little place. I didn’t know it until last year but Tony had seen the place a couple of times and decided to buy up the plots around the cabin so that my parents’ land was the doughnut hole and Tony’s land was the dough around it.
Tony had plowed over the old road that came up from the city and planted trees and brambles over it and then put in a new road on the other side that led out to an old mining road that was rarely used though it was semi maintained by the county. Tony’d had two purposes to the change. First off it was to stop the kids that used to use the property as a “parking spot” from being able to drive back onto it anymore and secondly so that the propane company would stop complaining that the road was too steep to get their trucks up and charging us extra for delivery. But Tony hadn’t gotten around to doing any more than help Dad bring in gravel to keep the new road graded which means that the road is rough in spots. In other words we were going to need the clearance and horsepower of the F250 to get where we were going.
It had been nine in the morning when we’d been forced to land. Between one thing and another it was creeping up on five o’clock in the late afternoon. “Joey, I need a bathroom break … like now,” Lucia said quietly.
Bennie grunted in agreement. “OK,” I told them. “And we all need to eat. I haven’t had anything since that bag of pretzels on the plane.” Bennie grunted again. “Traffic is picking up; I want to get out of it if possible before we stop. Can you both wait?”
Bennie turned to Lucia and said, “I’ll trade you a cork for a rubber band.”
“Ew!” Lucia complained though smiling a little as she came out of her protective shell.
They started bickering but not loud enough to irritate me so I let ‘em have at it. Who was I to judge how they loved on each other? After a brief bottleneck in a small town the road emptied again and I pulled over only long enough for all three of us to hit the bushes.
“I could really go for a Red Bull right now,” I commented as I got us back on the road.
“You want me to spell you?” Bennie asked.
“No but … look, try and get some rest because you might have to if I don’t get some caffeine pretty quick. Wait … I think I see a Dollar General up ahead.”
I pulled in, saw the store was close to closing time, but realized the area wasn’t as empty as it appeared at first as I counted cars in the rear parking spaces. Luckily the truck didn’t look out of place between the clay dust all over it and the cracked windshield. “Bennie, you and Lucia stay here. I’ve got some cash left and I’ll see what I can pick up.”
“But I want to come too,” complained Lucia.
“Yeah, and your clothes and accent will fit right in. Bennie keep her here, sit on her if you have to, just be ready to roll if I come out running.” I wasn’t kidding about Lucia looking out of place. She was still dressed in her Las Vegas best and even though she’d been living in Florida off and on for three years she still sounded like she’d never been on the other side of the Verrazano.
Walking into the Dollar General was like walking into the twilight zone. No one looked concerned or in a hurry except to finish their shopping before they were kicked out. People were whispering to each other about what was going on but they acted like it was happening on the other side of the world and not in their own state capital.
“So glad we got our unemployment check and got it cashed this morning. Do you know they charged me twice the normal fee for taking it all out instead of depositing some of it for the house payment?”
“Lucky you,” a woman next to her complained. “The Piggly Wiggly wasn’t taking EBT cards; they said the system was temporarily down. If they don’t get it back up by tomorrow I’m gonna have to go down there and say something.”
A young woman pushing a toddler in one of the store’s carts said, “At least you’re still getting checks. They’re taking away my benefits because someone ratted me out to my worker for having my cousin living with me. I told them it’s for protection. Well, he’s not really my cousin and we used to date and still do sometimes but they had no right. How I’m supposed to pay my bills now? I ain’t living in no skank part of town again. I’m getting me a lawyer and …”
I left the three clucking hens sharing the few brain cells they had between them and headed up another aisle. After putting several cases of cola in the cart I grabbed enough high test energy drinks to give an elephant a stroke. I hurried down another aisle, counting my remaining cash in my head, then stopped short to keep from running over an older lady that was trying unsuccessfully to put a case of water in her buggy.
Without thinking I stepped up and got it and put it in for her and two more when she said that’s what she wanted. I smiled politely but as I tried to turn back to my cart she grabbed my wrist and whispered, “Put some of that soda back and put some real food in that cart girl.”
We looked at each other in understanding but I whispered back, “We have what we need.”
She shook her head, “You can never have too much for just in case. I was just a baby but my brother would tell me stories of the war. He’s gone, bless him, and I’m almost too old to care what happens to me … but my granddaughter’s husband is a sheriff in the next county over and he’s sent her to stay with me, away from the big cities. You seem like a nice young woman, now do as I say. They’ve got some things on sale on the other side of the store. Anyone says anything just tell ‘em …” She stopped and looked around then whispered conspiratorially, “… you tell ‘em your child support finally came in but you couldn’t get your bum brother to run you to town.”
She winked and then left me standing there clinching my teeth to keep my mouth from falling open. I finally did as she suggested and filled the rest of the buggy with food that could be eaten without heating it up, and with enough junk food to bribe Bennie and Lucia into not complaining for a while. Contrary to my worry no one said anything up at the register; everyone’s carts were full though most were paying with government issue checks rather than the cash I handed over.
The elderly lady waved as she pulled out of the lot while I pushed the cart over to the truck. Bennie was sweating when he got out to help me load things in the back over Lucia’s complaint that she didn’t have any leg room as it was. “What took so long?” he asked worriedly.
“Taking advantage of an opportunity that might not come around again. Didn’t mean to worry you.” I put the ice I’d picked up over the cans in the Styrofoam cooler Lucia was filling. After that I threw a bag of Wise deli-style potato chips his way as an act of contrition.
Bennie grunted in acceptance and he and Lucia were soon gorging on carbs while I tossed back caffeine and popcorn to fill the void. As I knew it would, the spike and drop in their sugar levels soon had the two of them sleeping off their indulgence. I was finally alone with the kind of quiet that would let me think. Lucia had already discovered neither the phones nor the Internet was working. I sent a text out anyway on the off chance it might cue threw and reach my brothers. Then I tried to figure out a route to take while there was still enough light to see.