The Zookeepers Liberation
The county jail was bursting. It was a small jail, so it didn’t take too many bodies to get it at capacity, Paz knew. Forty-five was considered full. Ninety was considered too full. Paz figured there were probably 180, maybe 200 inmates squeezed in there now.
The law and order crackdown just before, during, and directly after the elite’s abandonment of Earth filled jails and prisons all over the country -all over a lot of countries- with people angry at the state of the world. Some were criminals, sure. Most were protestors demanding action, demanding help, demanding answers. So, they were arrested and locked up in county jails alongside people who couldn’t post bond, drunks, parking violators, petty thieves, assaulters, batterers, drug possessors, illegal firearm owners. They all found a home at the county jail. There was no such thing as no room at the inn. In fact, just before the last vestiges of society finally slipped away and everything truly went to shit, long closed prisons and jails were being re-opened with skeleton crews to meet demands.
That demand was how Paz got her job as a correctional officer at the local county jail.
It was strategic. She’d worked there for the six months leading up to The End, as most people now thought of it, learning everything she could about the inner workings, about the system. So, when the time came for this jailbreak, she was ready.
Paz led a team of three -herself, Janicki, and a young kid named Trevor- into the county jail in broad daylight. This wasn’t Paz and Janicki’s first raid; they’d already cleared out a couple of other jails in other counties, the two of them working together like they’d known each other for a lifetime instead of only a few months. Trevor was new, new to them and new to the cause, but he was eager and willing and Paz hoped that wouldn’t bite them in the ass. There was no guard at the front desk, something that didn’t surprise Paz; the jails and prisons were being abandoned daily now. The trio strolled through the first locked door courtesy of Paz’s keycard copy. No one at the guard station either. The monitors hummed quietly. Static crackled over a radio now and then. With Janicki and Trevor stationed nearby, Paz had a look at the monitors.
All of the cells appeared intact.
“Each cell opens with a manual pass key,” Paz said. “We’re going to have to go through and open each cell one by one.”
“Won’t that take a lot of time?” Trevor asked.
“You got something better to do?” Paz asked.
Trevor shifted his weight and said nothing.
“Any sign of anyone minding the store?” Janicki asked.
Paz looked over the monitors again and shook her head.
“Nope. Didn’t think there would be.”
“Wonder how long the place has been left unattended,” Janicki said.
Paz had no answer for that so she didn’t offer one. She’d quit three weeks ago, said she was going back to Mexico. But even with her absence, the schedule didn’t change; that’s why she picked today for their raid. Paz knew who was supposed to be here, knew that if they did show up, they’d be easily dealt with.
“C’mon. Let’s do this.”
Paz grabbed the passkey and moved towards the door that led to the cells. Trevor stopped her.
“How do we know who to let out?” he asked.
“What?” Paz replied, confused.
“How do we know which prisoners deserve to be free?” Trevor asked.
Paz glanced at Janicki, who was looking at Trevor like he was the most unusual specimen he’d ever seen.
“This isn’t a mission of merit,” Paz said and she turned away from Trevor, unlocking the door. “They all go free.”
Paz led the way.
The county was small, so its jail was small. There were three pods of fifteen cells each, each cell designed for double occupancy. One pod was reserved for women. There were also two segregation cells. The trio entered the first pod and Paz banged on the first cell door she came to.
“How many?” she called.
“Four!” someone inside yelled. “Get us out! Please!”
Paz nodded to Janicki and Trevor. The two men flanked the door, guns ready, just in case anyone decided to get surly. Paz unlocked the door and opened it.
The smell rushed out before the occupants, the ripe stench of body odor, urine, sweat, and shit.
“Walk straight through and on out,” Paz instructed the wide-eyed prisoners. “Doors are open. Get gone as soon as you’re outside. If you’ve got no place to go, stay at the reception desk. We’ll help you. Move!”
The four men, all black, ranging in age from early twenties to early fifties did not need to be told twice. They disappeared through the door and were gone.
Paz, Trevor, and Janicki worked through the pod, finding as many as eight, but never fewer than four in each cell Paz opened.
“How long have you been in here?” Paz asked one of the six women who spilled out of the first cell in the women’s pod.
“Me? Two weeks,” she said. She was sweaty, disheveled, and smelled like a beef stew gone bad. “But there ain’t been anybody by in at least two days. We’re all fixin’ to die of thirst.”
Paz nodded as Trevor muttered under his breath and Janicki shook his head. Nobody had been in for six whole shifts.
“Get gone,” she said, jerking her head toward the door. “If you need help, wait at the desk.”
“I’m good, thanks.” And the woman disappeared.
They emptied the women’s pod and the segregation cells before moving on to the final pod.
“Where is everybody?” Trevor asked quietly. “Where are the other guards?”
“It was only a matter of time before they quit coming in.” Paz paused in front of the cell.
“Most of the guards don’t care about these people, don’t even see them as humans. One of the guys I worked with said we’re zookeepers. In a way, he’s not wrong.”
Trevor nodded solemnly and then a different light brightened behind his eyes.
“Hey, yeah, what about the zoos? All those animals? What about them?”
Janicki shook his head, but Paz smiled at him. “That’s a different kind of run.”
Paz banged on the cell door. “How many?”
“Five!” came a voice. “One dead.”
The trio paused, a kind of stillness that only a feeling of being too late can bring.
Paz opened the cell door.
The men inside shuffled out rather than spilled like the previous cells, their heads down, their spirits depressed.
“What happened?” Paz asked the last man, an older black gentleman.
“He went to sleep and he didn’t wake up,” he said, his voice dried to a rasp. “He never said much. I was in here with him for four days and he never said his name. He was already broken. This did him in. We prayed for him.”
Paz nodded and the man sighed, shuffling past Trevor and disappearing through the pod entrance. In the cell, on the berth bolted to the wall, one of only two in the cramped space, lay a man on his side, curled up, facing the wall, not moving, not breathing. Even from this distance, Paz recognized the eerie stillness of death. She’d seen a lot of it lately.
Janicki turned and walked down to the next cell. Paz followed. Trevor hesitated.
“What do we do about the body?” he asked.
“We leave it,” Paz said without looking back.
“We leave it.” Paz’s voice kicked off of the metal and cinder blocks, sounding much louder than she’d intended. She looked back at Trevor. With a nod, he hustled to catch up.
The trio worked through the remaining cells in the final pod. Everyone else was alive, though more than a few were in rough shape.
“Doors are open. Get gone,” Paz instructed. “If you need help, wait at the desk.”
“They were gonna leave us to die,” a scrawny young white man said as he stumbled out of his cell. A bigger, older white man elbowed him aside and Paz kept him on his feet. He smelled like he stunk before being tossed in jail. It took Paz’s breath away. “They were gonna leave us to die, weren’t they?”
“Get gone,” Paz said, giving the man a shove in the right direction instead of answering him.
The scrawny young man scampered down the row of cells and disappeared.
“We’re good,” Janicki said.
“Let’s go,” Paz said and she unslung her gun and held it at the ready.
The three of them made their way back towards the front of the jail. Paz took note of how all three of them hesitated just a fraction of a second in front of the dead man’s cell. There were dead like him all over the place now, forgotten in houses and apartments and jails and prisons, no one to investigate, no one to claim them, no one to bury them, no time to bury them.
There’d be time enough for all of that later.
As the trio passed through the guard station, they were greeted with shouts. Trevor started to hustle, but Paz held him back. She signaled to Janicki that she’d take the lead and Janicki positioned himself right behind her, leaving Trevor to bring up the rear. Paz strode through the door with her gun at the ready.
In the reception area, Paz found about twenty of the 200 or so people they’d released huddled together, hands up, pleading not to be shot.
But not by Paz.
Guard Devon Ramsey had arrived for the shift that he used to share with Paz and he held the released inmates at gunpoint, shouting at them to go back into the jail, to get back in their cells. He nearly dropped his gun when he saw Paz.
“Reyes, what are you doing here? What is this?” he asked, confused, and then seemed to find his authority again. “Get these inmates back in their cells.”
“No, that’s not happening,” Paz said calmly.
Ramsey turned his gun on Paz. Trevor and Janicki aimed theirs. Paz kept hers ready, but otherwise made no movement.
“Are you part of this, Reyes? But your job-”
“I quit, remember? You don’t have a job anymore, Ramsey. Jail’s empty now.”
“What?” Ramsey lowered his gun, succumbing to the confusion.
“Nobody’s been in here for two days. There’s one dead in a cell. The zoo has gone bust.”
Paz took a few steps closer as Ramsey shook his head.
“Those were my days off.” And then he looked at her like a man needing absolution. “Those were my days off. I would have been here. I’m here now. I would have been here.”
“I know,” Paz said and she patted Ramsey on the shoulder. She glanced at Janicki. He nodded, lowering his weapon and moving towards the frightened group. Trevor stayed where he was, lowering his AR-15, but not by much. Paz turned her attention back to Ramsey. “And you’re the only one that would have been. You know who was scheduled these past two days?”
Ramsey snorted. “Oh, yeah. I know. The greatest patriots in town. Those bastards. Shouldn’t be shocked they’d leave people to die.”
Ramsey shook his head again. Paz looked over at Trevor and with a nod of her head, indicated for him to help Janicki. As quietly as possible, the two men hustled the group out of the jail. Ramsey didn’t seem to care anymore.
“This is crazy,” he said in disbelief.
“The whole world is crazy,” Paz said.
Ramsey looked at her, really saw her for the first time. He took in her black flack-jacket, her AR-15, her demeanor.
“You know, I really hated this job,” he said, straightening up and holstering his gun.
Paz smiled at him. “Yep. Me, too.”
“Let’s get the hell out of here.”
Items Left Behind
Chicago was frozen. Not unusual in the wintertime, but climate change had led to more milder winters and people’s memories are short to begin with. Varda had lived here once, though, and she had a good memory. She’d seen it frozen and snow covered like this.
But she’d never seen it so quiet.
In life, Chicago had all of the noise and bustle of a major city, even in winter when the wind would howl between the buildings and the snow would pile up on the streets and wait patiently to be pushed into Lake Michigan. During the apocalypse, it was loud and chaotic. That’s how Varda stole a city transit bus and drove it south on I-55 to her hometown in the cornfield. All of that noise was the perfect cover.
Now, though, it was still. There was no trace of chaos or confusion. No sounds of gunfire and screams and breaking glass and constant sirens. Not even the normal hum of a well-functioning city not on the brink of destruction, the traffic flow and the honking horns and the occasional siren and the people moving about. The sound of life.
There was no life here in Chicago, not anymore.
They’d driven up, Varda and Eli, to take a look around. It had been over nine months since the end of the world, or what everyone called the end of the world since it wasn’t really the end. It was just the huge cataclysmic event of the people who’d long ignored the threat of climate change abandoning the planet and leaving the rest of the world’s population in turmoil, a roiling mess of upheaval and dtsaster that lasted several months. But gradually, as summer faded into fall and fall geared up into winter, the immediate angry eruption of those left to die quieted down. Much of that was due to billions of the people left to die all over the world doing just that. They were killed in the ensuing violence or died from lack of supplies or committed suicide or suffered illnesses or injuries that proved fatal now that everything had gone tits up.
The network of people that had seen this sort of thing coming, a network that spanned the globe, had prepared as best they could, but in the end, they couldn’t save the world, just a few people. Varda couldn’t say how many were still around. There hadn’t been an official head count of “survivors”. The generous, rough guess was at least half a billion people on Earth were still alive and making the best of it.
None of those survivors, though, remained in Chicago, at least not that Varda knew. That’s not why she and Eli were here. Their runs to help evacuate survivors from the big cities and move them safely to the countryside had ended within six weeks of the first blip of chaos. The cities destroyed themselves pretty quickly.
Varda had commandeered one of the four-wheel drive vehicles, a supply of bio-fuel, a small pack of supplies, and Eli. She hadn’t meant to commandeer Eli, but since she and her team brought him and his team back from St. Louis, Eli and Varda had become a team. Varda didn’t ask Eli to go with her on this trip (she didn’t want anyone to come along), but when Varda slid into the driver’s seat, Eli saddled up without a word.
A fine blanket of snow covered the interstate, heaping over the abandoned cars and wrecks, most of which had been pushed to the side of the road over the course of trips there. Varda’s 55 Party Bus, the bus she’d stolen and had customized with armor to survive the rescue runs, had a cow catcher on the front. She’d moved a lot of these cars herself.
The snow was still fluffy, but thicker in Chicago, and the sky looked like it could let loose another round of it at any moment. The blanket of white made everything look serene, but Varda knew that many of those piles of snow were hiding cars and trucks, abandoned and wrecked, and some might still hold the corpses of their owners. The buildings showed more and more destruction as they drove farther north into the city. Inside those quiet, broken buildings were probably more of the dead, those that couldn’t get out and those that didn’t want to, dying on this weird hill of chaos.
The building that Varda was looking for stood largely undamaged. More importantly, the fourteenth-floor apartment she sought was still locked and for that Varda was grateful. It meant that everything inside was intact. And it made her own job of picking the lock much easier. She hadn’t had a key for this place for years.
When Varda popped the lock and pushed the door open, a rush of memories greeted her in the dim entry way. The curtains were open (he only closed them when he went to bed) and the last of the gray light of the winter day filtered into the front room. Varda stood there for a second trying to catch her breath, all too aware of the way Eli was looking at her. She picked up her backpack and gun and walked inside. Eli followed, closing and locking the door behind them.
They swept the apartment even though Varda knew there was really no reason to. She could tell by the undisturbed, familiar smell that was so distinctly him that there was nobody here and that nobody had been here for a long time. She almost felt like she was violating a sacred place. As it was, Varda felt like she was on the verge of tears just walking around the apartment, some weird mixture of sadness and happiness and memory.
Varda set her backpack and gun down on the couch and walked over to the window.
The view was largely unchanged in a surprising way. Yes, the buildings nearby had visible damage, but Varda could still see the lake, the winter blue-grey of it iced over in spots. The snow still settled like it used to, dripping from the rooftops and clinging to the buildings like it wanted to stay forever. Varda’s breath caught in her throat and tears stung her eyes. She wanted to turn her back to the view, turn her back to the memories it brought, but to do that would mean facing Eli and she didn’t want him to see her like this. She didn’t want to have to explain it to him, not right now. She didn’t even want him here for this. This wasn’t a routine salvage run. The stop at that drugstore, the salvage she and Eli did there, that was just a cover. She was here in Chicago for one thing: to retrieve something important to her.
Varda swallowed her tears and cleared her throat.
“Check the kitchen,” Varda said. “There should be some non-perishables in there we can take back with us. Maybe some bottled water.”
“Okay,” Eli said and Varda could feel him looking at her, trying to puzzle her out. “Are we going to stay here tonight or drive home in the dark?”
Varda’s heart seized twice in rapid succession. The first time was at the thought of Eli spending the night here, in his space. The second time was when he mentioned home, as if this place wasn’t Varda’s home.
But it wasn’t and it never was, if Varda really wanted to admit it. It was just a temporary shelter at a pivotal time in her life. Sort of like now.
“Yeah, we’ll stay tonight,” Varda said, her voice watery and slightly strangled. She cleared her throat harshly. “We’ll be safe here.”
“Okay,” Eli said after a long pause and Varda heard him move across the living room to the kitchen.
Safe from his sight, Varda turned away from the window as though the soft winter light hurt her eyes, blinking hard and wiping her cheeks.
She made her way down to the bedroom.
The bedroom was dark because he never opened the curtains in here. It was his refuge. Varda turned on her flashlight. Sure he was long gone, but she still couldn’t bring herself to open the curtains because it would be against his wishes.
The bed was made, the familiar dark green bedspread smoothed free of any wrinkles, the dresser drawers closed, the closet door closed, everything neat and precise. If she walked across the hallway to the office/guest bedroom, it would probably still look like a tornado had hit it. In his work, he was a disaster area; at rest, he was the picture of peace.
She and Eli wouldn’t be sleeping in here.
Varda stood there for a moment, breathing deeply. His scent lingered here as well, much stronger than the rest of the apartment, and again she felt an extreme tug at her heart that brought tears to his eyes. She blinked them away and with a shaky breath, she walked around the end of the bed to the nightstand on the opposite side. Opening the drawer and shining the light inside, Varda’s breath caught in her throat, drowned by a sudden wave of tears.
Lying in the drawer was a journal, a small book bound in red leather. On top of it was a necklace, silver and delicate with a small angel charm.
Right where she -and then he- left them.
Varda wanted to sit on the bed and cry, have a real good sob. He’d kept them and she knew he had and they were still there in the drawer on her side of the bed because he knew that even as the world burned down around them, she’d come for them. He kept them, but they were hers, and so he left them for her.
Varda permitted herself one solid sniffle before wiping her face clean of any tears. She then pocketed both the necklace and the journal, not letting her gloved fingers linger on either item. Varda was glad for the gloves. If she’d touched either item with her bare fingers, she’d be burned by her own memories for sure.
Shutting the nightstand drawer, she skirted around the end of the bed and walked out of the bedroom, closing the door behind her. Varda turned off her flashlight and jammed it into the other coat pocket.
Eli waited for her in the living room, standing awkwardly at the end of the couch, looking down the hallway. Varda stopped short when she saw him there. She’d forgotten about Eli, the memories of her previous life having swallowed her up and transported her back to another time.
“Are you okay?” he asked, concerned.
“Fine,” Varda said, forcing a bright smile.
“No, you’re not,” Eli said.
Varda let any semblance of a fine façade (which she knew was probably garbage) disappear. “No, I’m not. But I don’t want to talk about it either.”
“Okay,” Eli said, still watching her.
Varda approached him slowly, like they were suddenly strangers instead of two people who had formed an unlikely, intense bond in the face of adversity and avoiding violent death repeatedly. It was a bond forged by fire, literally since there were Molotov cocktails involved when they first met. Eli had integrated himself so neatly into Varda’s existence that she had trouble remembering life without him.
Until she walked through the door of this apartment.
Here was a lifetime without Eli, without the assurance of him, without the unsure looks he’d give her when she drove like a wild woman, without his companionship, without his quirky sense of humor that always snuck up on her.
Here was an entire existence that Varda had left behind long before the world exploded, but still, she’d come back for it. For a piece of it.
Her old life weighing down her pocket while her current life looked at her, worried but curious, Varda smiled weakly at Eli.
“So, what did you find?”
Take the 55 North
St. Louis was burning. Not that Varda minded. She hated St. Louis and was perfectly fine with it burning to the ground. However, there was a pocket of people in that flaming mess that she did like and she needed to get them out before they were nothing more than charred memories.
Varda drove the city transit bus over the bridge spanning the Mississippi River, the heavy smoke hanging over the city tinted grotesquely orange by the noon sun. A road block had been set up on the Missouri side of the bridge. Varda ignored it, jolting the heavily armored, spray painted bus as she blew through the subpar barrier, the cow catcher welded to the front demolishing it.
She’d stolen the bus in Chicago and drove it down Interstate 55 to the middle of the state, to the cornfield she’d grown up in, to the group of people waiting to modify it for their own purpose. Nobody stopped her, nobody chased her, nobody even seemed to notice.
It’s amazing what a person can get away with when the world is ending.
Instead of working to make the Earth continue to be a habitable place, the world’s most powerful and wealthy continued to accumulate their power and wealth, and funneled it into a secret project called Safe Haven (which Varda thought was a totally unoriginal name). As the American government continued to slash NASA’s budget, the private sector continued their own space exploration and upon finding another planet that was reasonably close (something like fifteen years travel time; Varda didn’t measure things in miles), they immediately claimed it for the dollar sign and started plotting to abandon Earth and all of the undesirables there in.
So when Earth hit the point of no return in the climate change game, the “important” people bailed in quick fashion and left everyone else, something like seven billion people, to die.
Things muddled along okay for a few months, until the first power grab attempt. Everything went to shit surprisingly quickly after that.
The group Varda was part of had been bracing for this environmental apocalypse. Their network had grown over the years, spanning the globe, with the objective of surviving. Pockets of people, groups of humans all over the world were prepared when the metaphorical shit hit the fan. But, Varda was surprised at just how good she was at the Mad Max part of this. She guessed it had to do with working so many Black Fridays in retail. This was a lot like that, only now no one told her to be polite.
As Varda drove the bus further into St. Louis, she glanced in the rearview mirror at the crew she’d brought with her. There were four of them on this run, including her: Paz, Dean, and Janicki.
“Paz,” Varda said, steering around a cluster of cars, riding the sidewalk to do it. “Where are we going?”
Paz made the awkward walk up to the front of the bus, using the seats to keep her balance, her AR-15 slung across her back, clacking against the bullet proof vest she wore. She held onto the back of Varda’s driver seat and bent over to look out the windshield. Sweat dripped from her chin and landed on Varda’s shoulder. The bus had no air conditioning anymore and the windows were covered with armor.
“Damn, nothing looks right,” Paz said and wiped some of the sweat out of her eyes.
Varda plowed through a crowded intersection of disabled cars, the bus shuddering and jerking.
Dean shouted from the back of the bus to take it easy.
“Traffic is the same, though,” Varda said.
Paz shook her head, cracking a rare smile before going immediately serious again. She pointed out the windshield.
“Four more blocks. Left up there. They’ll be in a building about two blocks down. An old pharmacy about half-way down the block, they said.”
“Right,” Varda said, focusing on counting the blocks.
Paz squatted down next to her, still holding onto her seat for balance. She couldn’t see out the windshield now, but she could see through a small portal on the door; the rest of it was armored.
“How’d they end up there anyway?” Paz asked.
The wisdom that prevailed was to never be in a city when everything went to shit because the cities, particularly the big ones like Chicago and St. Louis, would self-destruct first and they’d do it in glorious fashion. That’s how Varda was able to steal a bus so easily. If anyone was in the city, their number one priority was to get out.
But this group, like several others, hadn’t managed it.
“The guy who called for help, Eli something, said they went in to get a few survivors and got stuck. Ended up picking up other survivors and got too big to move,” Varda said.
Varda maneuvered the bus around the turn, riding up on the curb and coming dangerously close to taking out the stoplight to avoid some intersection wreckage. Dean complained loudly about the bumps.
So far, they hadn’t seen anyone on the streets. An uneasy tension settled among the seats of the bus. It was weird that they hadn’t at least been shot at yet.
Paz stood up again, staying low so she could see out the windshield.
“Up here on the right,” she said. She pointed. “See that building with the busted sign? It’s two down from that.”
Varda nodded. “Our stop is coming up,” she called to Janicki and Dean.
Without a word, the two men moved to the front of the bus.
Varda watched as the building with the sign dangling from it got closer. The sign identified the establishment as some sort of real estate company. Varda bet the market was way down now.
Slowing the bus down, Varda maneuvered closer to the curb. She pulled to a stop.
Paz had the door open before Varda got the bus in park. Dean and Janicki bounced out of the door behind Paz, weapons drawn. Varda grabbed her own AR-15 from under her seat and brought up the rear, holding position near the door, keeping an eye on the street and the buildings around them. The air smelled like burning garbage and the hot breeze that blew through did little to cool Varda’s overheated skin.
Paz and Janicki went to the left side of the pharmacy door, Dean to the right. Dean banged on the door.
The man who opened the door, Eli, Varda guessed, had a brief, hushed conversation with Dean before shoving the door open wide, bracing it with his body.
“Let’s go!” Eli yelled.
First out was a mother carrying an unimpressed toddler and clutching the hand of a terrified girl of about six.
“Straight back,” Varda said to the woman as Varda helped the little girl up the bus steps. “Sit down and keep low.”
People funneled out of the building to the bus, men, women, and children of various ages, some carrying backpacks full of supplies, some with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.
“That’s it,” Eli said, hurrying towards the bus.
A Molotov cocktail exploded only feet from them against the side of the building. Eli hit the ground flat on his belly and covered his head. Janicki ran for the bus as gunfire erupted. Paz and Dean returned fire. Varda ran for Eli.
“Get up! Move! Go!”
Bullets pockmarking concrete and brick, Varda grabbed Eli by the back of his shirt and jerked him to his feet, shoving him toward the bus. Another Molotov cocktail exploded next to a nearby parking meter.
Eli hurried onto the bus and Varda scrambled in after him. Eli ducked behind the driver’s seat. Varda tossed him her gun and despite his shock and adrenaline, he caught it. Varda started the bus as Paz and Dean dove onboard, Paz slamming the door shut.
A third Molotov cocktail hit the side of the bus. Passengers screamed. Flames flashed along the armor, but with nothing to catch hold of, flickered out harmlessly in seconds.
The bus roared down the empty street as Dean and Paz ran down the aisle to take up defensive positions, shoving the muzzles of their guns through small holes in the armored windows; Janicki covered the rear door.
“How do we get out?” Varda asked anyone.
A voice behind her said, “Left! Here!”
Varda took the left hard as shots ricocheted off of the roof of the bus. Passengers screamed. Dean cursed Varda’s existence and terrible driving skills.
Eyes on the road, hands clutching the wheel, Varda weaved through the mess of cars. She needed to get back to the bridge. Everything would be cool once they made it back to I-55.
But Varda wasn’t sure how to do that. St. Louis was Paz’s territory and Paz was currently firing out the window at an unseen enemy intent on slaughtering everyone in the bus to claim possession of it, or just destroying the bus and everyone in it because people have been shitty since the dawn of time and the apocalypse had not improved the collective disposition. If this was Chicago, it would be no sweat. But this was St. Louis, so there was a lot of sweat.
And then someone was at her elbow.
Varda spared a glance and saw Eli bent over next to her, peering out the windshield.
She neatly skirted the next wreck with minimal swearing from Dean or screaming from anyone else. Then a Molotov cocktail bounced off of the hood of the bus, sending flames all over the windshield and that did elicit a few curse words (hers) and a scream (a woman a few seats behind her).
“Just keep going,” Eli said, holding onto her seat as the bus rocked. “You’ll take a right in about three blocks.”
“A right?” Varda asked, unsure.
“I know, it’s not the way you came, but it’s the way you leave. Trust me.”
Varda glanced at Eli again. The look on his face, the look in his eyes sold her.
Varda steered through another intersection wreck and then rode the side walk to avoid a dead traffic jam in the middle of the block. She took the right.
Here the river rushed past nearly even with the street and Varda found herself in the lane right next to it to avoid more vehicular carnage.
“Right up there is your exit.” Eli pointed. “You need to slow this beast way down. You’ll never make the turn.”
“I got it.”
“I mean it.”
“So do I.”
Varda smirked at Eli and he frowned back. She didn’t take it personally.
The ramp was mercifully clear of any cars or wrecks.
“Hang on!” she yelled and downshifted.
Eli braced himself as best he could and closed his eyes.
Varda took the turn hard, but not two-wheels hard. Dean cursed Varda’s name, her existence, her driving skills, and any descendants she might have in the future.
Varda merged onto the interstate. Here there were only a few islands of wrecks and most of the abandoned cars had been shoved off to one side or the other. Varda worked the bus up to cruising speed, leaving behind St. Louis, which would no doubt continue to burn.
As the bus mounted the bridge that spanned the Mississippi River, Varda took the microphone for the bus PA and clicked it on.
“Ladies and gentleman, welcome to the 55 Party Bus. We are currently headed north and will be arriving at our destination in three or four hours depending on traffic, bathroom breaks, refueling, and roving bands of fuckheads. So sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride.”
Varda replaced the mic and looked over at Eli.
“The 55 Party Bus?” he asked.
Varda shrugged. “Why not? Who says you can’t have a good time while the world comes to an end?”
Eli laughed, a mixture of relief and bewilderment.
“I can’t argue with that.”
“I wouldn’t try.”