Under the Gray Skies, page 15
They did so in a way unimaginable.
“I’m sorry. I am so sorry,” I tried to console Madison. It was impossible. After a few minutes she asked to be alone. It worried me and I even expressed that to her. She simply told me she wanted to say goodbye and get a few things. Some pictures, items that she knew she’d never see again otherwise.
Del and I retreated to the Humvee.
“If she does anything drastic,” Del said. “It’s her choice. I know what she’s going through.”
We filled the tank with gas, and left the Humvee running while we rested.
Eventually Madison joined us. She had a knapsack full of items. Things she didn’t share, but said she would one day. She cried a lot, it was understandable.
Repeatedly she said, “How can I even bury them? The ground is frozen. I can’t just leave them in there to rot.”
“We’ll figure something out. We will,” I said. I knew what she meant. Funerals were closure, a way to say goodbye, a finale.
I didn’t have that for my sister. I merely held her decomposing hand and left her in the rubble.
There was guilt over that, so I understood why Madison was upset about it. It was a ritual and a sign of respect.
She had a drink then, emotionally spent, she rested her head on Del’s shoulder and fell asleep.
When I saw she was sleeping, I closed my eyes and reclined back in my seat.
I don’t know how long I was out, but it wasn’t a dream that woke me. It was heat.
I was sweating.
I felt it first, then noticed the brightness against my eyelids. Panicked, I jumped up believing something was wrong with the Humvee and saw that the interior of the Humvee was illuminated by a bright orange hue.
“Del,” I called to him as my eyes shifted out the window.
He groaned then said, “Why is it so hot? Turn down the heat.”
“It’s not the car.” Then I did something I didn’t expect to, I shut off the engine. There was no need to have it running.
The fire not only lit up the entire area, but heated it as well.
Madison stood in her yard a distance from the house. She stood as if she had taken command of the situation. A silhouette against the backdrop of the flames.
I opened the door and stepped out. It wasn’t cold, the heat blasted me and I walked to her.
The entire home was engulfed. It was an inferno.
“Hey,” I said softly.
“I needed a way to say goodbye. My farewell,” she said, her eyes not leaving the house. “Was I wrong?”
“No. Not at all.”
“It was cold, Lace. The car was freezing up even with the heat on,” she said. “We would have died, too. I know it. I felt it. Now I’m not cold. Bruce died trying to keep everyone warm. Now he keeps us warm. I can feel it.”
“I do, too.”
She grabbed hold of my arm, clutched it and leaned against me. Madison didn’t move, she just watched the flames.
Like a Viking funeral, the home was Bruce’s ship and she lit it aflame. In her own way, she gave Bruce and the boys a send off she believed they deserved.
NOTEBOOK – DAY TWENTY-EIGHT
Please be alive. Please be alive. Please.
TWENTY-NINE – FROZEN
There was a point in our journey, it came about an hour and a half into our trek across Ohio, a point where I wanted to stop.
Madison bravely got back in the Humvee. She spoke very little, but her words made an impact. “You know, I knew,” she said. “I knew the second everything happened that I would never see my family again. Despite what I said, how I acted, I knew. Yet, I allowed myself, at the very end to believe they were alive. Maybe it was just wishful thinking.”
“You did see them again.” Del said. “Maybe not how you wanted it, not how it should have been, but you saw them. You are remarkable and braver than I am. I couldn’t even go in my house. You said goodbye to your family. I feel horrible that I played a part in getting your hopes up.”
“No,” Madison shook her head. “I would have felt optimistic each mile we drove and the closer we got.”
It was that point when my foot slowly depressed the brake.
“What’s wrong?” Madison asked.
“Let’s just stop. Let’s go south. I can’t do this.”
“Are you kidding me?” Madison asked. “You’ll go forward.”
“I can’t face it. I’d rather not know than see them …’
“Tough,” Madison said. “Tough. We have come this far and we will keep going until we know.”
“What if they’re …?”
“But what if …?”
“Then you’ll face it,” Madison said. “Like I did and like Del did. I believe they aren’t. What are the odds? One of us has to find their family alive.”
Oh, yeah, what were the odds? Pretty good, I believed. A simple look at our surroundings told me the odds were stacked against survival.
I began to drive again, the entire time thinking, was the weather foreboding, the cold, the snow, the ice, was it trying to stop me from going any farther? It seemed with each mile east, things worsened.
“Here’s a question,” I said softly. “This was about finding our families. This was our drive to survive. If, God forbid …”
“Stop it.” Madison snapped. “I’m serious.”
“I am too. Do we want to live? Do any of us want to go on? We would have lost everything and everyone. Do we want to keep going on in this screwed up world?”
There was silence. During it I started thinking that maybe if I could find water, I would jump in. They say that it was a peaceful way to go.
For miles no one said anything. I guess the question of, ‘Do any of us want to live?’ was on both Del and Madison’s mind.
Finally, Madison spoke up. “Yes. Yes. I do. Bruce and my boys died trying to live for me. The least I could do is try to stay alive for them.”
She was right.
If my family was still at my house, then they, like Bruce were waiting on me. Trying to survive. I owed it to them to keep going.
I would know soon. The truth of their fate was only a mere few hours away.
At least close to it.
I absolutely dreaded when we had to drive north, even something as simple as forty miles. I just didn’t know what was ahead.
My home town was across the river from Steubenville, Ohio. Steubenville was barren, frozen and desolate. Flyers were posted everywhere, but they too were frozen. I thought and believed that a major northern exodus was successful. After all we hadn’t seen any cars on the road as we went north.
Then once in Steubenville we realized why.
The cold hit so fast, people just didn’t have time to get out.
Many that did try, met their fate on the Memorial Veteran’s bridge. A huge, colossal architectural wonder of Ohio. A cable-stayed bridge with triangular pylons.
It had collapsed, the cold along with the abundance of cars, snapped the bridge and sent it into the frozen river.
Cars that had fallen became integrated into the ice creating a frozen cemetery.
There was one bridge that hadn’t collapsed. We stopped before crossing it. Going across that river was the only way to get to my house. My home was a mile at the most from that bridge.
We paused there for the longest time. It was like walking on ice. We were one vehicle. I wanted to just drive as fast I could, but the surface was slick.
The five minute ride over the bridge seemed like an hour. I felt as if I were waiting for it to just let go and crash to the frozen water below at any second.
There was another obstacle to overcome though. The roads. Unlike the Midwest, West Virginia had many hills. Even the highways weren’t straight and even. We figured by looking at the map, if we could make it mid way south through the state, things would ease up.
But first … my family.
My heart pounded from my chest when we pulled onto my street and then I lost it. I felt it drop to my stomach and my insides twisted and turned. My ears filled with a buzz as my rising blood pressure pounded and burned them.
The family van was still out front.
The windows of the house were iced over. A tree had fallen across the yard. If nothing else, my home screamed death.
I stopped the Humvee. “I can’t go in there.” I lifted my eyes to Madison.
“You sure?” she asked.
She squeezed my hand, put up her hood, grabbed her gloves and reached for the door.
“No,” I stopped her. “You don’t have to.”
“You need to know. I’ll be back.”
“I’m coming with you,” Del said.
I felt the blast of cold air when they both opened the doors. My forehead dropped to the steering wheel.
How long had it been since I prayed. I wanted to believe it was years, but that wasn’t true. I prayed in that hole.
Eyes closed tight I prayed that it was fast, that they didn’t suffer. I hoped it was peaceful at least.
Did they die knowing I loved them?
Hand clutching the steering wheel, my body tensed up while waiting on the final verdict.
The driver’s door flung open.
“Stop torturing yourself,” Madison said, then handed me a frozen solid baggie. Inside was a note. “They left.”
NOTEBOOK – THE NOTE
I tried to wait for you. I really did, but I had to think of the kids. If you are reading this note, I am so sorry we aren’t here. We know you are out there, alive, trying to get home.
The weather is predicted to take a turn for the worst, it’s already cold and without power, staying warm is hard. Last word from Mr. Johnson and his ham radio was that Yellowstone was on the brink of joining whatever set off the cascade of eruptions. Your mother made it here a few days ago. We’re taking her SUV and heading to Moundsville to hopefully follow the convoy to Virginia.
Our destination is Norfolk. Refugee ships are leaving there in a few days and then again, two weeks later. I don’t know whether we will make the ship on the twenty-fifth. Please know that we had to go. I will be waiting for you and pray you find us.
I know there are millions heading south. They’ll probably put us in one of those camps. I don’t know. I took that stupid Sun Flag with us. I will put it out wherever we are. So no matter how many people, no matter how many tents or trailers, look for that flag.
Find us Lacey. I hope and pray you do. We are all fine and alive, and we all miss and love you very much.
I love you with all of my heart,
THIRTY – STALLED
The letter was written nearly a week earlier. Placed in a baggie and taped to the table just inside the front door. He stated my mother arrived a few days earlier. Which meant my mother went directly to my home after getting my call. The day he wrote it was the day me and Madison left with Callie and Stone. We were still out west.
They left before the exodus.
They had a jump on it.
I wondered why he picked that day and why he went to Moundsville and not straight to Norfolk. Did he hear something, see something?
I stood in my frozen living room taking in one final look, then like Madison, I gathered some items. I took photographs, and other things that perhaps someone else would understand my reasoning behind. I put them in my backpack.
Madison and Del both asked about the sun flag. A flag I should have noticed right away was missing, but I didn’t. I explained that I had flags for all occasions. I placed them on a pole from our porch. Before I left for California I hung the summer one. A bright blue flag with a huge yellow sun with a smile face and the words, ‘summer is here’. How ironic he took that one. In the midst of a wintery hell, I was to look for a huge smiling sun.
Perhaps, it would be the only sun we would find for a long time, but it wasn’t the only sun I wanted to see.
We didn’t stay long. It was time to go. I knew no matter how fast we drove, even under the best road conditions, we were missing the Seven-Twenty-five. Our best bet and hope was to get to Norfolk and find out what ship they took.
I knew they wrote down names in Kansas, I only hoped they did the same in Virginia.
The biggest problem we had was the weather. Not the snow or ice, but the cold. Callie said orders were changed because they expected uninhabitable weather in a week.
When she said it, I found it hard to believe. As I stood in my home, the bone chilling cold showed me the reality of it.
Bottom line, for our safety we had to get south as quickly as we could.
We debated on how we would do it. Would we stop or drive through the night with the spotlights on? Stopping was just as dangerous as driving.
We had made it from one end of the country to the other and still had not found what we were looking for.
By joint decision, we were going to push through, drive into the blackness of the night. That choice only took us so far. Fear of going over the side of the road, seeing only twenty feet in front of us, caused us to stop and pull over.
We didn’t quit for the entire night, just long enough to get brave again. Despite refueling, and leaving the vehicle running, stopping for those two hours was our biggest mistake.
As we originally believed, it was too cold to stop.
We only needed to make it another two hundred miles.
Half way through West Virginia was our goal. Things had to switch up there, they had to.
A mere hour after we resumed our trip, the engine felt sluggish. I felt I had to push it, depress the gas as much as I could just to get juice.
Before long, the Humvee sputtered and choked. On the highway south, for some reason, it just died.
It reminded me of the night with Callie and Stone. The night we were attacked. Out on the road, everything so black, the headlights reflecting off of nothingness.
We had lights, but the engine wouldn’t start.
“The fuel line is frozen,” Madison said. “It has to be the fuel line. We have battery power.”
“What do we do?” I asked.
Del shook his head. “If that is what’s going on, unless some freak warmer weather happens, then there is nothing we can do.”
The Humvee was done. None of us knew how to fix it. Even if we did, we didn’t have the means or parts. But even if we had all the parts and know how, we still couldn’t fix it as we wouldn’t last five minutes outside.
“Well, this sucks,” Madison said.
“Yeah,” I glanced over to my notebook and the picture of Davis and the kids clipped to the front. “Yeah, it does.”
We were done.
We knew it.
Our journey, although unfinished had come to an end on a cold, dark West Virginia highway.
“They say,” Madison said. “That freezing to death isn’t a bad death. Not supposed to feel anything. You just get tired, the shivering stops and you die.”
“Who says?” Del asked. “I don’t think those who froze to death got to say how it felt.”
Madison shrugged. “It’s better than falling from a building.”
“True,” I said. “We could have suffocated like those people in California.”
“Or cooked,” Del added.
“We could have been shot, or stabbed,” I said. “That’s a horrible way to die. I always feared choking.”
“Thinking about it,” Madison said. “There could be worse ways to go other than freezing to death with people you care about.”
We lit candles to add not only light but warmth and sipped on the remaining airline size bottles of alcohol while talking. I took some time to write one final entry in my notebook. Not that Davis would see it, he wouldn’t. Neither would the
We were going to make the best of it. What else could we do? Walking was out of the question, and soon enough, we’d freeze to death whether we stayed or walked.
We weren’t there long, maybe two hours. Longer than I thought we’d last. We shivered out of control. My face went numb, and I had to keep cupping my hands around my mouth, breathing into them to stop my lips from freezing together.
I watched as Del’s head started to tip forward. He’d catch himself, but was fighting the drowsiness. I felt it too.
It was when I stopped shivering that I knew the end wasn’t far off.
Just as I resolved myself to that, there was a triple bang on the window, followed by a beam of a flashlight.
Instantly, I felt rejuvenated. I sprang forward. Del snapped awake.
“Oh my God,” Del said. “Is someone out there?”
“Hey!” the male voice yelled. “Anyone alive in there?”
We couldn’t make out the face. The light caused him to be a shadow, but I was certain there was more than one person out there.
“Yes!” I screamed.
All three of us enthusiastically cried out, our voices meshed together. “We’re here. Yes. We’re in here!”
They tried to open the door, it rattled.
“It’s frozen!” he shouted. “Can one of you kick it?”
He was pulling on the passenger door and Madison turned her body and just started slamming her foot into the door. She was relentless. Slam. Slam. Over and over until finally, with a huge crack, the door flung open.
Two men bundled in winter gear shone the light inside.
“Everyone all right?” the one asked.
“We are now,” Madison said.
“Let’s get you on the bus. Hurry. Get what you can,” he instructed.
Without hesitation we obliged.
I could tell by their gear they were military and when I saw the bus, I knew. A convoy had found us.
We didn’t grab much, we didn’t need much, just our personal belongings. I grabbed my backpack and took a moment to some transfer things from my suitcase and I left that behind.
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