October 1st 2012
Monday, April 23rd, 2007
Tim gave the Portland Plague Zone a wide berth. What he was looking for wasn’t there.
He’d been walking so long his feet had stopped hurting, or rather that the pain didn’t occur to him much anymore. It was just there, a companion to the grittiness he felt on his skin and the dryness of his lips. He walked on the margin of Interstate Five, between the edge of the road and the guardrail, staying out of the road as much as possible so he didn’t have to spend all his time watching out for speeding vehicles. That had been a problem farther south. There wasn’t much traffic anymore, just the occasional military convoy thundering past, the soldiers waving to him out of their hatches, not even bothering to slow down to ask him who he was or where he was headed. Anyone traveling north had to be either crazy or authorized. The sick people the soldiers were looking for didn’t walk in straight lines, as a rule.
He kicked old picked-over suitcases out of his way. Avoided stepping on the trucker bombs—old drink bottles, bright plastic full of yellow urine. Nobody on this road wanted to stop even to relieve themselves. The weeds he trampled on were softer than the asphalt of the highway, so that was something.
According to the mile markers he was halfway to Olympia when he saw the bus coming. The road was on a slight incline, heading up over a hill so gently graded he was barely aware of the added exertion of walking uphill. The bus was coming directly toward him. It was moving fast, he thought, but it was hard to tell when he could only see it straight on. The rectangular sign above its windshield that should have listed its destination was blank.
It was coming right for him.
Tim had time to blink and to reach up and start to adjust the brim of his straw hat. Then his body took over, his reflexes, and he sprinted out into the road, across two lanes. Fast enough to avoid being smeared. The bus didn’t veer off, didn’t turn to track him. It plowed across the yellow dashed line, jumped as it left the road surface. There was a long, high-pitched squealing roar as it rubbed up against the guardrail. He heard a much lower roar as one of its tires exploded.
Time was breathing hard, shaking. The fear had come back, a fear he’d thought he was done with. The bus ground to a stop fifty feet behind him, rocked on its suspension. For a second everything stopped moving.
Then the doors at the front burst open and screaming people spilled out on the asphalt, grabbing at each other, shrieking, the men and the women with wide eyes, the kids looking terrified. They flowed out like blood from a wound, moving cautiously away from the bus as if they didn’t want to get too far away but just far enough. The driver came out last, a fat man in a blue shirt, and he waved at Tim with both arms, summoning him. Tim loped over, unsure what had happened, unsure what was going to be asked of him. He tried to talk but his voice was rusty after so many weeks alone, his throat too dry from the road. “Everybody okay?” he managed to creak out.
“Inside. In the back—one of them—” the driver stuttered.
“He just had a cold, it was the sniffles,” a woman in a rumpled business suit insisted. “Just a cold!”
Tim sensed what he was being asked to do, even if no one could seem to articulate it. He scratched at his stubble-coated chin and then climbed the steps into the bus. At first he was just happy to be inside, in the shade. The bus was air conditioned against the summer heat and it was some kind of mercy to be cool again. His eyes, long adjusted to the glare of sunlight on a pale road, could make out very little of the bus’s interior.
From far ahead of him, down the serried aisle, he heard a thump. Tim squinted until he could make out the rows of seats upholstered in green and red and orange. He could see piles of hand luggage tumbled out of overhead compartments, a tidal spill of food wrappers and newspapers lining the floor. At the far end of the bus stood a narrow plastic door that was rattling, someone pounding on it from behind.
“Crap,” Tim choked out. He dug his arm out of one strap of his pack. Started pulling at zippers. He’d never done this before. If the driver had given him specific instructions he would have refused, turned away and kept walking. Let the passengers deal with it as best they could.
No, he thought. He wouldn’t have done that. Even this late in the game he was still incapable of turning his back on people in need. But why him? What made them think he was the man for this job?
The narrow door crumpled on one side, pushed hard by someone who didn’t have the brainpower to work the simple lock. With one last heave it broke free and swung out hard, then bounced back. A pale hand grabbed its edge, forced it open again.
The man who staggered out of the bus lavatory wore an oxford cloth shirt with half its buttons undone. The cuffs of the sleeves hung loose as if he’d been trying to escape from his clothes when the change finally came. His head was almost bereft of hair, just a few clumps left sticking up at random angles like obscene horns. His skin was the color of rancid cream and a thin sheet of black drool leaked from his lower lip. His eyes were completely empty.
He wouldn’t have much brain left, Tim knew. The Russian Flu attacked your cerebral cortex first, drilling holes through your gray matter, turning it into a sponge so it could hold more germs. It irritated whatever was left, the medulla, making you clumsy, the amygdalas, putting you in a permanent state of fight-or-flight. The speech centers, the parietal lobe, the parts of the brain that let you read a good book or enjoy a fine wine, shut down altogether.
On stiff legs the man came toward Tim, moving as fast as he could, stumbling over the seats, getting tangled up in the garbage on the floor.
There was plenty of time for Tim to reach into his pack and take out his 22A. The pistol stank of oil, as it had ever since Tim had bought it from a pawnshop in San Francisco. Back when there had still been a San Francisco.
The sick man took another step, raised his arms with his fingers curled like claws.
Tim took the safety off, took a stance, aimed. Squeezed the trigger. The bullet went in through one side of the sick man’s forehead. The next one went through his eye. He fell down like he was going to take a very sudden nap.
It took a third one to put him completely out of his misery. The .22 caliber long rifle bullets in the gun were meant for target shooting or at best shooting small game. In the end, with enough shots, it didn’t matter.