Static: Fade to Gray, страница 1
Table of Contents
Static: Fade To Gray Book 1
Chapter 7 – One Month Later
Static: Fade To Gray Book 1
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Ash fell from the sky. On the horizon, the downtown Chicago skyline burned, crumbling the once-proud architecture she had loved so much. The empyrean blue of the atmosphere grew congested and poisoned with black, virulent plumes of pollution.
The combined heat of sun and fires burned the streets clogged with broken-down vehicles, half of them wrecked in twisted piles and the other half abandoned, their owners fleeing on foot. Along the roads, what stores hadn’t caught fire were looted. Any goods the criminals left behind were scattered on the sidewalks amidst shards of broken glass. The city had turned to chaos, and Wren Burton was anchored in the eye of the storm.
Wren limped forward, ignoring the pain radiating from her right thigh. She swung her right arm awkwardly, compensating for its companion on the left, which lay wounded in a sling. Dried blood was caked on her right pant leg, and every pound of pressure she laid upon it with her hobbled steps brought forth a fresh coat of crimson that added to the flaking crust already in place.
The sections of the borrowed shirt and pants she wore that weren’t covered in bodily fluids were dirtied with grime. Her pale skin was darkened with the ashes of the burning city, and her black hair was greyed from soot and dust. Her foot kicked away debris scattered in the street: a broken bottle, crumpled papers, shattered glass. She fumbled her fingers over car doors, yanking at their handles fruitlessly, all of them locked, and not even trying the wrecked vehicles stacked in pileups that dotted the roads.
After a few dozen tries, success. Wren flung the door open wildly, sliding into the driver’s seat, probing her hand in search of the keys, which the owner had left in the ignition in their haste to flee the burning city. But when Wren turned the engine over, she heard nothing but a click. “No!” She flicked the key again, frustrated, but each try only returned the same impotent noise. She slammed her fist into the wheel and then pulled herself out. She sprinted to the next car, slid into the driver’s seat, then punched the dash after the second failed attempt to start the engine.
Wren looked back to the looted electronics store where the overturned ambulance lay twisted and mangled. No working car meant no escape. No escape meant death. What did Nathan say? An older car. Find an older car. She passed the newer models, their paint still fresh and bright, their innards sophisticated with the comforts of technology and efficiency.
The searing pain in the cut on Wren’s thigh forced her to stop and grip the rusted pole of a street sign for support. Her legs shook. Her breath was labored. She eyed the small strip mall parking lot to her left, a rusted minivan catching her attention. She pushed herself from the pole, using the momentum to press forward.
Wren patted the side of the rusted van until she arrived at the driver’s door. The handle squeaked when pulled, but refused her entry. She thrust her good arm through the cracked window and reached for the lock at the window’s base. The lock grazed against her fingertips, and the window dug painfully under her arm as she stretched to position for a better grip. With her face smashed against the door frame and her arm extended as far as it would go, she plucked the lock up and swung the door open.
Bits of rust fell from the hinges as she climbed into the driver’s seat. The ignition was empty, but a purse lay over the torn fabric of the passenger seat. She dumped the contents out hurriedly. She pushed past lipstick and napkins, credit cards and IDs until she felt the rigid metal of keys scrape against her fingers.
Wren thrust the key into the ignition, the gaudy key chains jingling together. She closed her eyes, her wrist poised to start the van. Please. Work. The engine choked and stammered. Wren leaned her foot on the gas as the engine struggled to catch its spark. She pumped the pedal. C’mon! Finally, the cylinders kicked into gear, and the old rust bucket took its first breath of life.
“Yes!” Wren slammed the door shut and shifted into drive. The car squealed as she pulled out of the parking space, maneuvering through the minefield of busted vehicles and overturned lampposts, trash cans, and street signs.
The brakes screeched as the car came to a stop next to the overturned ambulance, and Wren left the engine running as she passed by the dead paramedic, half his body hanging out of the front windshield, his head bloodied and the rest of his body limp.
The inside of the electronics store was in no better shape than its exterior, and Wren kicked aside broken boxes and packages on her way to the storage closet. “Nathan! I have one!” Before she reached for the handle, the door swung open, and a large, heavyset man with his belly falling over the front of his jeans stepped out. The mustache under his nose was thick and bristled, and he stroked it nervously as he nodded.
“We need to get Doug in first,” Nathan said, disappearing back into the closet.
The moment Wren set foot in the room, her leg was attacked by her youngest daughter, Chloe. The hardened cast around her left arm smacked the cut on Wren’s right thigh, and Wren winced from the pressure. “Mommy, I want to go home.”
Wren knelt down while Nathan propped Doug up against the wall. “Honey, we can’t go home. Not right now. We need to get your dad and brother help.” She looked past Chloe to her eldest daughter, Addison, curled up in the corner, cradling her head. “And I need you to take care of your big sister, okay? We need to get her to the van out front. Can you help me with that?” The five-year-old puffed out her lower lip and nodded.
“Wren,” Nathan said. “I need some help moving him.”
“Mom.” The cry came from behind her, where her eldest child and only son, Zack, lay propped up against the wall. Even in the darkness, his face was pale, and Wren saw the beads of sweat rolling off him. His right leg lay mangled and bloodied under his ripped jeans, the shin completely snapped in half, the remnants of the makeshift brace his father had constructed barely holding it together after the ambulance wrecked. The involuntary spasms of pain his muscles offered betrayed the hardened look of courage the fifteen-year-old had etched on his face.
Wren clutched his hand as she walked past. “We’re taking you to get help. Just hang on for a little bit longer.” She kissed the top of his head, fisting a cluster of black curls that rested on his scalp. But what kind of help will we find?
Wren tossed Doug’s arm over her shoulder, and together she and Nathan lifted him off the floor. Though his weight was spread between the two of them, she still struggled to keep him upright. And the added pressure only increased the agitation of her thigh. “There.” Wren gestured to the van, the heat from the city and the stress triggering a burst of sweat from her brow and neck.
“We’ll get his torso inside first,” Nathan replied, opening the back doors. “On three. One, two, three!”
Both of them grunted in the coordinated lift, and the back of the van lowered on its rusty shocks as Doug’s body thumped on the floorboard. Wren gave him a shove forward but stopped once she saw the streaks of blood smear the van’s dirtied carpet.
“The clotting powder will only hold for so long,” Nathan said. “We need to
“AB positive,” Wren answered, looking at the gritty material covering the hole in his stomach. She grabbed his hand. She shivered; his skin was an unearthly cold. She quickly released his finger and limped back inside to retrieve Zack. “Let’s get everyone else loaded—”
An explosion sounded in the north, and Wren and Nathan ducked, grabbing whatever they could for support as the blast rocked the pavement. Wren danced on shaking legs into the center of the street. A fresh column of smoke snaked its way into the sky, and the sharp pierce of the initial explosion faded into a dull roar.
“Wren!” Nathan said.
Wren forced her attention back to the van and hastened her pace. We have to get out of the city. Nathan helped Zack outside, her son spitting groans through gritted teeth, while she carried Addison with her one good arm with Chloe trailing closely behind.
Nathan piled Zack next to his father in the back, and Wren strapped the girls in the second row. Addison rolled her head back and forth, her neck loose as a noodle. She cradled her daughter’s cheek, worried about the effects of the concussion, and double-checked her seatbelt. Once everyone was secure, Wren climbed in the passenger seat. “Do you know any hospitals in the south?”
Nathan shifted into drive, shaking his head. “None that’ll have any power, and judging by what we’ve seen so far, they’ll be targets as well.”
“Right,” Wren added absentmindedly. She caught her reflection in the side mirror and didn’t recognize the face staring back at her. Dust covered most of her head, and her hair was ragged, her cheeks hollow and dirty. She reached down and touched the cut on her thigh, grimacing, then gently rubbed the dull ache of her left arm in its sling.
“Zack!” Nathan yelled, narrowly missing a ten-car pileup as he veered around the edge. “I need you to check your dad’s breathing every few minutes. Just place your hand under his nose and leave it there, make sure there’s still an air flow.”
Wren turned and watched her son place a shaky hand under Doug’s nostrils. The van bounced over a pothole, and he nodded. “Yeah. It’s faint, but he’s still breathing.”
“Good. Just keep checking, Zack.” Nathan jerked the wheel side to side. The tires screeched with every harsh maneuver. Stand-still traffic congested the outbound lanes.
“Stay off the highways,” Wren said, clutching her seat belt. “If we’re one of the only working cars in the city, then I’d rather not advertise it.”
“Me either,” Nathan answered.
City buildings slowly morphed to the industrial district the farther they drove. A few miles beyond that, they saw the backs of the lines of people who’d left their disabled cars behind, exiting the city. Their heads perked up at the sound of the vehicle.
The greater the distance that separated them from the city limits, the thicker the crowds of pedestrians grew. It wasn’t long before Nathan was forced to slow their pace as they came upon a cluster of broken-down police cars. Wren gripped the armrest tight, hoping none of them were desperate enough to try and stop them. But while she drew in her breath, the herd’s attention was focused elsewhere. A massive Red Cross station had been erected, composed of flapping tents and folding tables.
Stacks of food and water were unloaded from trucks and distributed to outstretched arms and hands clamoring for help. Police officers formed a human barrier between the workers and the crowd, the hordes growing increasingly bold as the officers struggled to keep the masses at bay. A cluster of soldiers intermixed with the police kept their hands on their rifles, one of them barking orders to the crowd, which only exacerbated the people’s defiance.
The line finally broke on the far left side, and the crowd swarmed through the hole like water in a sinking ship. They toppled tables and trampled workers, discarding what decency remained and satisfying the impulsive need of survival. Wren scooted away from her passenger-side window, watching the eyes follow their vehicle with the same lustful intentions they cast on the rations. She clutched Nate’s arm. “Don’t stop.”
Nathan pointed to some of the medical tents. “Wren, this could be the only available medical staff for miles. I don’t know how much longer Doug is going to last.”
Gunshots rippled through the air, and Wren turned just in time to watch the masses shift like waves in a tide, pulling apart like cotton candy. “Go!” But by the time Nathan tried to accelerate, the masses swarmed the van like locusts, smacking into the doors and windows, climbing on top of the roof and clinging to the hood. Screams flooded in from the left, cut short by more gunfire. Wren squinted through the fleeing crowds, and her heart dropped at the sight of masked men tearing through the masses. They wore the same black cloth as the terrorists that attacked the hospital. “Nathan, go, now!”
The engine revved, and Wren felt the thump of bodies collide against the van as Nathan pushed through the sea of people scrambling to get out of their path. Nate laid on the horn, and horrified faces gazed through the windows as Wren peered over the heads of the crowd to the skirmish between the authorities and terrorists. One by one the men in masks fell, and as the crowd cleared, only one remained, bloodied and on his knees, reaching for a device at his belt.
The explosion blinded Wren just as much as it deafened her. The van rattled, and the heat from the blast melted through the windows and doors. The harsh, high-pitched whine slowly faded, and as she opened her eyes, she saw the road had cleared and the van had picked up speed.
Wren turned to look back. The tents and tables had been wiped away, the windows in the surrounding buildings shattered, and a small crater rested in the earth where the masked man had knelt. On the outskirts of the blast, what was left of the crowd was scattered in pieces. Random body parts stretched for at least thirty yards. Those who’d survived the blast sprinted in whatever direction led them away from the carnage.
Chloe and Addison huddled on the seat, their limbs twisted around one another with their heads down. Doug still lay unconscious, while Zack looked out the back window in the same direction as his mother. When he finally turned around, she watched his pale cheeks turn a light shade of green. “Girls, don’t look out the windows for a little while. Just keep your heads down.”
Nathan gripped the wheel tightly, keeping his gaze straight ahead. His eyes watered, but no tears fell. “We shouldn’t stop until we can’t see the skyline anymore.” His voice caught in his throat, and he shifted uneasily in his seat, glancing in the rearview mirror to Zack. “Your dad still breathing?”
The van was silent for a moment before Zack answered with a yes, and Wren felt her mind grow heavy and tired. She reclined her seat as the landscape outside her window shifted from buildings to open fields. The sky cleared the farther south they drove, and only a few sporadic vehicles were left in their path. What people they passed were too few and exhausted to cause any trouble. Wren brought a shaky hand up and rubbed her eyes, trying to rid herself of the fatigue as much as the images of body parts.
The fog lifted from Wren’s mind at the panicked shout, and she turned around to see Zack with his ear to Doug’s nose. “He’s not breathing.” Her son hyperventilated, looking from his father to his mother, uncertain of what to do.
“You’ll have to give him CPR, Zack,” Nathan said, his eyes scanning the road for any signs for a doctor’s office or medical facility. “You need to tilt his head back by lifting his chin to open his airway.”
Zack shook his head, tears streaming down his face. “I-I can’t. I’m sorry. I can’t.”
Nathan pulled off to the side of the road, unbuckling his seat belt in the process, and jumped from the driver’s seat and into the back. “You drive.”
Wren climbed behind the wheel and shifted the car back into drive, peeling out in the grass and gravel as she floored the accelerator. She flitted her eyes between the rearview, where Nathan pumped his hands over Doug’s c
“We’ll have to stop there,” Nathan said, puffing another breath into Doug’s lungs. “He’s not going to last with me working on him like this.”
The speedometer tipped eighty. Adrenaline raced through her veins with the same high-octane intensity as the fuel in the van. The town’s welcome sign passed in a blur as the first few buildings came into view. She slowed, looking for any signage for the hospital, but soon discovered the town was nothing more than a small strip of buildings on either side of the road.
A white building with a black sign out front toward the end of the row of stores caught her attention. She slammed on the brakes, veering off the road. “I’ve got something!” She thrust the van into park and helped Nathan pull Doug out of the back doors. Nathan scooped Doug in his arms, sprinted past the veterinary sign, and made a beeline for the door.
Wren flung the side door open. “C’mon, girls.” Wren held out her hand, and her daughters sheepishly crawled from their seats. She scooped up Addison, who still couldn’t stand up right, and Chloe huddled around her legs. She looked to her son. “I’ll come back for you once I get them inside.”
Zack nodded, and Wren guided the girls up the steps and inside the office. A series of bewildered faces glanced at her once inside, along with howls and screeches from a handful of animals, some of them caged, others held by their owners. Nathan burst through a door down a hallway. “Wren! Back here!”
Wren placed the girls in two vacant chairs in the waiting room. “You two stay right here and do not move.” She kissed their foreheads and sprinted toward Nate. His massive body blocked the doorway, and she tried to peer past him, but the small openings offered no view of Doug.