Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Burned Bridges

The weather was crisp and cool, a perfect autumn late morning; the sun was a small piercing light rising in a frosty blue and white sky. The smell of turning leaves, that earthy wet smell of the world falling asleep, met the Aubreys as they rode as if greeting a neighbor. Everything seemed almost welcoming and familiar.

The family rode their bikes on the trail around a small lake, the sun making tiny white sails of the breeze-ruffled surface.

Val, plastic lightsaber extended and tightly held, stared silently behind them, his solemn face barely showing over the back of his seat in the pedicab.

Close, close,” he whispered, but Eve didn't hear him. Val pressed the button that in past months would light up the saber's green blade, but the toy hadn't worked properly for a while. “Need more batteries.”

Cassiopeia pressed her angry-looking small face against the mesh of the pet trailer, staring at Will as he came along at the end of the group.

It's ok, little old lady,” Will said. Cassie opened her mouth; about as often as she made noise she made these soundless meows.

They rode for a bit, quietly, at a mild pace. The trail seemed deserted even of the slinking dogs or wild creatures that one might expect to see.

Eve raised her hand and came to a stop. Will came up beside her and she pointed. Just off the side of the trail was a large, rotting fallen tree shrouded in bushes and brown weeds. Will was about to shrug when he saw what she was pointing at – movement beneath the tree.

In a nest dug into the fallen leaves and forest debris, sheltered by the trunk of the fallen tree, they could see the ragged shirt of a flu rioter, the fabric moving up and down so quickly the creature almost seemed to be hyperventilating. Now and then there was a little tremble, otherwise there was no other movement beyond the breathing. A soft growling snore arose from beneath the tree, and in the pet trailer, Leah hissed.

Eve jerked, startled at the cat's noise. Will put a warning hand on her arm and she shuddered, struggling to breathe silently.

Will pantomimed sleeping and she nodded. He held his hands up to ask what to do next. Katrin tugged on her mother's other sleeve, her eyes huge and anxious.

She pointed down the trail pleadingly.

Will pointed at his family, and up the trail. He quietly slid his baseball bat out of the makeshift holder he'd made it and held it ready.

Eve grimaced, but nodded resolutely. She pointed forward for Katrin, urging her on. Katrin shook her head at first, then swallowed and nodded, and drove her bike around her mother and took off ahead and quietly and swiftly as she could. Eve followed, turning back after a safe distance to watch Will catch up to them. Without a word they all continued swiftly on for worried moments, not even Val making a noise.

They didn't slow down until they'd passed the marina, silent and empty beneath the sun. Most of the slips appeared to be empty, but those remaining rocked, the leaves rustled gently as they slipped from their trees; so picturesque it seemed made to call human attention, though little of that remained.

It was asleep?” Will asked Eve when they stopped for a breath.

Seemed like it. Didn't seem to realize we were there,” she said.

Asleeping,” Val said.

They must sleep more during the day if the light hurts their eyes,” Katrin said.

Chips now.”

Val, wait until we get to the Fort and get settled, please,” Eve said.

Water?” Val asked, and Katrin found him a new water bottle. Eve worried. Val had always eaten so much, thanks to a blessedly high metabolism that she personally would have killed to have; at one point in an attempt to get him up to a more typical weight for a kid his age, the doctor had him on an extra thousand calories a day. Fewer people should mean more food for those who were left, but the infected ate nearly constantly and the preserved food that was most easily accessible was likely gone.

We need to get going if we want to get there before dark – dusk comes early in the fall,” she said.

THE FALL... OF MANKIND!” Will said dramatically, and Katrin punched his arm.

Before they even reached the climb up toward the bridge that would take them across the river and toward the Fort they realized there was a problem. Part of the bridge was hanging precariously askew with char marks and continuing wisps of smoke even now, a week after the Flu Riots began.

They drew to a stop and stared up at the broken bridge. Will rummaged in his pack for some binoculars he'd taken from the bike store.

It's wrecked. We're not going to be able to get Val across,” he said. “Half the piece by that column is hanging down, there's a burned up fuel truck half hanging off there, and the rest is all blocked with cars.”

Well, we can't leave Val behind!” Katrin hissed.

No one is suggesting that!” Eve said. She bit her lip. She did not swear all the swear words she knew if only because she could see Kat was becoming more distressed and if she realized Eve was also scared, it would make things even worse for her.

The family turned to the south a bit where the Fort, looking solid, peered down from the cliff top it had been built on nearly two hundred years earlier. The soft gold stone walls seemed to beckon with promises of safety and peace.

All that stood between Eve and her Brood and this bastion, those thick walls and heavy doors, those cannons for goodness sake, was the Mississippi River.

The marina!” Eve said suddenly.

Boat!” Val said excitedly.

They hurried back to the marina.

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