On a hunch, Ben picked up his phone and sent a text to Cici. “Is there anyway Bradley could tell me what to do with this truck?”
She sent one back, “Been awake 4 awhile.” In a second a new text appeared, “says send a pic.”
He popped the hood again.
“Hey I got a dome light over here!” yelled Thomas from the other side of the garage.
“What kind of car?” Ben hollered back.
“It’s a Ford pickup.” Chey answered.
Ben took off in a dead run. The ruble was less intense down here, but the earthquakes had still ravaged the girders. The constant aftershocks were a worry but had happened so much that they were becoming second nature.
When he arrived at the truck it looked to be okay and was even a four wheel drive, which was definitely handy. Ben snapped some pictures with his phone and sent them to Cici in hopes that they weren’t getting too far out of range. Soon a brief but detailed email came back about which wires to undo and splice to open the ignition and crank the starter.
Thomas jerked the lower dash panel from the truck and worked with the wires until the truck reluctantly fired. They let the battery build for a while to make sure the tendril of sun didn’t fry the alternator. But they couldn’t wait long because the truck only had a quarter of a tank of fuel, and without electricity the gas stations – if they could find one still standing – would not be easy to pull fuel from.
Chey and Ben hopped in as the truck climbed from the rubble around it. Only to see that a rear tire was flat.
“You got a air compressor in that pack?” Thomas grinned.
With a smirk Ben shook his head.
“Oh well, it’s not like we’re going to be reselling it.”
Once on the flat open pavement inside the garage, they locked the hubs in four wheel drive. A slow crawl from the underground building meant going ahead of the truck and clearing debris from it’s path. Finally they cleared the opening to the outdoors and proceeded to pick up the others who had gained nearly a quarter of a mile on them. It didn’t take long even with a flat tire to see them trudging along, getting slower by the minute in the more than hundred degree heat.
The clouds were getting angrier and started a trek from the west now, slowly returning the water where it came from. It would start raining soon as the atmosphere started to cool from the lack of sunlight.
The stretcher was loaded into the bed of the truck and progress was made toward the long bridge that connected the two islands to Miami.
Ben watched the areas that were lush and green the last he saw them, sparse, burned and wilted. So much devastation. So much death. He wondered if his mother had left the house in time. He wondered too if there would be enough left of it to salvage his supplies.
The truck’s flat tire flopped helplessly in the wheel well, making an odd sound as Thomas moved slowly to pick and choose his path before he got to it. Ben hoped they could just go across the causeway and be finished, but the likelihood of that was slim to none as the small after shocks continued even now.
Now as they moved past the empty marina that used to be full of charter boats, where now only a few up-ended and charred boats remained and very little water, this was the moment of truth. The first stretch of the causeway loomed before them. There were no breaks, but that didn’t mean that the bridge had not been weakened by the earthquakes. The truck or even the foot traffic might fall to their death to what was now a gorge instead of a waterway.
Thomas eased across slowly. They were still making good time, barring any new problems, but problems on this bridge would mean death.
Gary and Ben walked in front of the vehicle to listen for any distress as the heavy truck made it’s way across. Thomas was letting the truck idle in second gear to keep from wasting any fuel. So far the needle hadn’t moved.
Ryan had been the relief carrier when Everette or Gary got too tired and needed a break, and now he sat in the back of the truck with his head in his hands.
One thing was for certain they were going to have to find a water source soon. The three bottles of water they had been rationing were gone and they needed to put Ben’s water purifier to the test quickly.
The pickup rolled over the debris of Virginia Key. There had not been many buildings on the small island before the flare, it was a huge marina park. There weren’t any boats or buildings left here now; scrubbed clean and took the water with it. They marveled at the large valley that used to be a shipping lane between the islands and main land Florida.
Now as they crossed onto the last section of the Rickenbacker Causeway, they couldn’t see the other side. This portion of the bridge was longer and taller. Even with most of the water now missing from the bay, there was no way this truck could follow the jagged and purposely channeled crevices of the bottom of the bay. No, they would have to find some way of bridging any gaps and moving on. Unfortunately, the clouds were already starting to become so dense that the day felt much later. Two o’clock now felt like eight o’clock. It was dark, and it would be a torrent when those clouds let loose.
When it started, it would not let up for a very long time. Ben hoped they could find fuel and a tire for this truck somewhere so they could continue using it, but he also knew that the chances of that were slim.
As they made the sweeping left turn to mount the causeway, Ben looked at the pylons. They were nearly a hundred feet apart. If there was a collapse, there would be no spanning it, not with anything they had on hand and not from anything left on the islands.
Ben began brainstorming, just in case. Jump the truck? Not without time to build a ramp and a good tire and way too much luck. The weight of the landing would not only destroy the truck, it might cause a second collapse, not to mention they would all be in the truck or it wouldn’t work. So they all would die in one stupid attempt to survive.
Next! he thought, shaking the shiver from his spine. A zip line. Ben had a two hundred foot paracord. He hated to waste so much of it in one go, but they may not have a choice. Then again, what if more than one section was damaged? There would be no keeping the truck, but there was a way to get Bradley across a zip line.
They crawled along, Ben and Ryan now walking not far from the truck, Everette and Gary scouting the length of the bridge. It wasn’t long before Gary and Everette came back with heads hung low.
“We need to be on that side,” said Gary to Thomas, “This side has two sections missing, but the other lane is intact still.”
Ben decided to state the obvious, “Can this truck crawl over the concrete barrier? We don’t have enough daylight to turn back now.”
Thomas left the truck running and hopped out. He stepped up on the good tire at the back of the truck and peeked his head over the bed side of the pickup.
“Hey, Calvin. What do I need to do to get this truck to climb over a foot and a half concrete barrier?”
Colonel Bradley roused his head as Ben cleared the lowered tailgate.
“You’ll need to drop the air pressure in the good tires. It sounded like the clutch is pretty weak, so you’ll have to keep from gunning it too much. A light touch on the clutch and hit the wall at a small angle so one tire starts climbing first, but not at such an angle to high center on the axle pumpkin.”
“So run almost straight into it?” Thomas asked.
Bradley nodded weakly.
Ben took out his knife and pressed the pin on the valve stems. He had no way of checking the pressure, so he was guessing by how much the tire’s side walls were beginning to bulge.
Gary guided Thomas to the short wall. The driver’s side tire was touching the wall while the passenger side was still an inch away. The bumper barely cleared the top of the concrete.
Ben had an idea. There had been a bumper jack in the bed of the truck. After the forth attempt failed at bringing the truck’s tire to the top of the barrier, Ben hooked the long jack to the front bumper and started cranking.
The men all worked on cranking the truck into the air except for Thomas who waited behind the wheel for the signal. Gary guided him forward slowly. Just as soon as the jack was against the tire, the other tire had bit the concrete too. Ben lowered the jack and moved it out of the way.
Thomas now was on the brakes more than the clutch as he used the mechanical motion of the truck to lower it to the pavement. Gary watched under the truck as the wheels dropped to the other side. It dropped hard and in the process hit the drive line harshly, bending it. The long metal tube that connected the transmission to the axle would have to make do as best as possible. There was no way to fix it here and there were no spare parts.
The jack was used again on the back bumper. The longer drive line to the rear axle was causing more problems. Luckily, the bed of the truck was lighter than the cab, and while scratched and dented, the tube never bent. Soon the flat tire was on top of the barrier and forward they dropped. The back bumper didn’t clear and was twisted upward into the body of the truck, but they were over the barrier.
Loading back up into the truck, they started rolling again. A funny squeaking noise coming from the front drive shaft was irritating, but they were headed for the main land. They were on the descending side of the bridge now. Most of the remaining part of the causeway was on level land.
Chey had remained silent for most of the trip. She wondered why she was still alive. It made no sense. Everything she knew was gone. Her mind ran circles around all of the things that her father had lost in only seconds. Yet they remained alive.
But why? Why did Ben save them? Duty? Chivalry or whatever they call the concept now?
The heat was unbearable, but Ben had insisted that they should make sure as much skin was covered as possible. He had given her one of the metal blankets like he had put over Bradley. It was helping but she could feel the heat draining the life from her with every drop of sweat. It was almost like the time they were on that safari in Africa. Only, the heat here was drenched in water. It felt like that time she nearly drown in the Black Sea when visiting Ukraine. Her lungs were full of water, but she was so thirsty. The last of the water bottle Ben had given her was gone by the time they reached the mainland of what was left of Miami.
There wasn’t much. The buildings were taller and not as damaged but they were still obliterated. No windows remained anywhere. Cars were stacked on top of each other, some still burning.
Ben was following a map of Miami that he had downloaded to his phone several days ago. Thomas was making the turns he suggested, but mostly they stayed on the main highway. The few signs that still stood were bent and twisted. She couldn’t tell what highway they were on until they had already passed the sign, most times.
The sky was starting to become angry in ways she had never seen before. The lightning was becoming very intense and was hitting the building carcasses around them.
By the time Thomas finally turned into a parking lot. There were ruined tall buildings all around but some of the two and three story buildings were beginning to have intact windows. She saw a sign. Veterans Affairs Emergency Room Entrance.
Thomas yelled to the back of the truck, “Pull Bradley out and hang back for a sec.”
Chey and the others did as he asked with a trust to do as he said, but still wondering why. With a slight rev of the truck, he lurched forward and crashed through the glass doors, then through a second set further in the building.
The truck shut off for the first time in three hours. He batted with the jack handle at the remaining precarious dangling glass to make it shatter on the floor in the vestibule. When it was safe he ushered them in and they set Bradley on the floor of the Emergency Waiting Area and they all flopped into the surrounding chairs.
They had survived to meet a goal.
Chey, still angry for what Ben had said before the horrible event, sat next to him, nearly forgetting why she was mad. She watched him roll his head on his shoulders, trying to ease tension, before lolling backward with his eyes closed.
Thomas eyed a freestanding water cooler in the nurses station. He filled the plastic bottles that they carried with them and passed them around. Chey was grateful for the seemingly cold water, even though the water itself was probably very warm.
“At this current rate of destruction, we should be able to start finding some people still alive on the other side of the Everglades,” Ben said.
“That truck doesn’t have enough gas left to make it beyond the city limits, much less the Everglades,” Thomas grunted as he refilled the bottles a second time to pass around again. “Unless you have a gas can in that pack of yours.”
Ben sat up angrily. “Still making fun of the backpack? Seriously? What do you have? A pocket knife, Mister Black Ops Boy Scout.”
Thomas didn’t answer. He only glared. Ryan broke the silence with a simple, “Thanks for saving me too guys. I wouldn’t have even seen that coming.”
Ben nodded, “There were million in Europe that probably will agree with you. They didn’t see it coming either.”
Chey pulled out her phone, trying to get a signal.
“Put it away, Cheyenne,” Ben said calmly, “You’ll only disappoint yourself.”
“Why do you say that?” she asked.
“There won’t be a signal for hundreds of miles, and then only if the planet’s electrical grid has any transformers still running. The EMF that thing had was enormous. I’m only glad the baggie protected the phones or we would have no communication if we get separated.”
“And how are you going to keep them charged up, Smartass?” Thomas growled.
“I have several charging stations. I have a solar panel that folds out from the size of a wallet. And I have a wind up flash light that has a USB port if the sun isn’t shining. Anything else?” Ben’s sarcasm dripped on the floor.
“We aren’t doing our selves any good arguing.” Gary shot Ben a look that was supposed to seem angry, Chey thought, but he instead appeared exhausted.
This heat was taking a toll on them. Chey had an idea to grab a thermometer from an overturned supply cabinet in the nurses station. When she found it the temperature said 102 degrees. It was still hotter than that outside. It was no wonder they were all tired and irritable. They were being cooked alive.
One by one, they started a forage of the spaces that had been untouched by the torrent of steam or the following earthquakes.
Ryan found intact rooms on the second floor that had empty beds. Chey was disturbed to find that apparently the interior of this hospital had been much hotter. They found no one alive. Many cloth items had started to burn, extinguished fairly quickly by the sprinkler system until the pressure ran out. The system managed to keep the fires from spreading, but helped to boil everything else.
The steaming water cooked the lungs of the occupants of every room. The walls even had a brown tinge that got darker toward the ceiling. As if only it had been a touch hotter, the whole building would have burned to the ground from spontaneous combustion.
They had been smelling the burnt ozone and ashen heat for so long themselves that they would have never noticed the still present smell of the near fire.
Chey never would have noticed had she not found a small bath room in the far west side of the building which door had been closed. She laid on the floor for a long time just staring at her phone. The device stared back emptily, unable to connect to anything but the map that showed a dot for every connected Bluetooth device.
They could find her if they wanted to.
The tile floor was cool to her touch. As she laid there, she began to realize how dirty she was. In the dark of the bathroom she cringed at the thought, then unrolled a wad of paper. Checking with her flashlight app on her phone she thought she could tell that the water in the toilet bowl was clean.
She debated with herself, back and forth with whether or not to use the toilet water to clean herself. “The hot air should have sterilized it.” “But what if?” “It’s a hospital, they clean these things regularly.” “But what if?” She finally gave in to the debate and wet the paper lightly.
When she had nearly finished, she thought to herself, “Wait. This was the only room that had toilet paper. It didn’t get hot enough to burn the paper.”
She shivered but then shrugged, “Oh well. It can’t be any worse than breathing cars and people’s ashes up my nose.” Opening the door to the hallway, she had been in the nearly untouched bath room long enough that the smell that she had become accustomed to, nearly knocked her down. It was horrid.
The smell of death, the burnt flesh, the toxic plastic, the horrible ash; she could barely stand to take another breath. It was like walking into a house just after a fire gutted it. She choked several times.
“There you are! We’ve been looking all over for you!” Cici doted as they ran toward her.
She held up her phone and waved at them with it. “I knew where you were.” Her voice expressed her disappointment in them perfectly.
Her mom and Cici stopped with a startled look on their faces and dug the phones from their purses.
“I’m the purple dot. Remember?” she sneered and walked right past them. Her phone vibrated in her hand. A text from Ben.
“Everyone needed to the lobby, ASAP.”
“What’s this about?” Cici scowled at her phone.
Chey shrugged as she started her walk toward the lobby. The two women followed behind her.
“You know Cicilia, I don’t undertand why you hate him so much,” she said, still looking ahead.
Cici sighed. “I don’t hate him. He reminds me so much of my little brother.”
“Oh, I’m sorry – did he die?” Chey said with a real sprinkling of woe.
Cici laughed. “Andrew? Hell, no. He sits on Mom and Dad’s couch watching TV all day. He’s a loser.”
Chey rolled her eyes, instantly washed in the regret of asking.
A few steps later though, she heard a bewildered sigh, that sounded nothing like the first one.
“How hard to you think Greenville got hit?” asked Cici.
“North Carolina?” Chey slowed her steps to turn toward Cici.
“That’s something to ask your wannabe step-son. But if I remember my maps right, Greenville is quite a bit further east than Miami. It’s a good possibility they got hit worse than here.” Chey saw no reason to sugar coat anything she said to this witch. She heard no reply, so she didn’t turn around, instead opening the door to the stairs.
That’s when she heard it. The torrent of rain.
Water! That was her first thought. She ran down the stairs. When she got almost to the bottom of the dark stairwell she heard it. So much rain, coming down so fast and hard, that it had no where else to go but right in the front door that they had smashed through.
Ben was screaming over the deafening down pour. “We need to get him upstairs!”
Chey knew he was talking to Thomas and Ryan who had come from the hallway as she pushed her way through the sludgy water that was filtering through the door like a river. It was pitch black. Ben reached in an switched on the headlights of the old pickup.
Ryan and Thomas with the help of Gary and her dad, picked up the gurney they had laid Bradley on and headed for the stairs she had just exited.
Ben waved Chey over. “We gotta get this stuff upstairs or it will be gone.”
She and the other two picked up the satchels he had stocked with first aid and medicines. He grabbed his pack and another satchel and they waded the water that was now waist high. It was warm and thick, like a cup of tomato soup.
As the gurney was turning the corner of the landing, Ben pulled the door shut behind him. The sound of the rushing water was still audible but at least they could talk.
“I hate that we can’t save the truck.” Ben said.
Thomas shouted down the stairwell, “It was almost out of fuel anyway. Remember?”
Ben stopped. “The battery!”
The men were setting Bradley down on the top landing.
“Ben?” Thomas had an ‘Oh no,’ sound to his voice.
“We have to. It may be our only one for a long time, and who knows when we will be able to leave this building again. It could be weeks. That’s the only battery we’ve seen that could be usable, and it may be the only one for miles.”
“Do you have the stuff to remove it in a few seconds? My guess is, as fast as that water was rising, it will be shorted out in only a few. And then you’ll be risking your life for a dead battery anyway.” Thomas turned and pointed to the exit signs. “Besides, we have all kinds of batteries that only need a good charge put back on them.”
“But the heat got to those right?” Ben made it to the top level.
“I found several of them that the cases haven’t been melted at all. Most of them can charge from a regular phone charger with some basic mods. And there are several back up batteries on the computers up here too.”
Ben continued. “If we could find a phone line that still had signal or a fiber optic line the inverters could power a computer long enough to see if we could reach anyone.”
“Whoa there, kiddo.” Thomas extended an arm in protest. “Don’t get ahead of yourself. The EMF storm right? I doubt there is a computer in here or anywhere in the world that works.”
Chey held up her large phone tablet, “He saved one.”
Thomas’ doubting face fell into one that almost matched Ben’s. Gary just shook his head.
“What else are we going to do while we wait for that water to die down?” Ben said with a sneer.
Ryan took the opportunity to chime in. “You guys are smart and all, but as dry as that ocean was; this water will drain right to it in no time. The erosion will start picking up and this water will leave almost as fast as it came.”
They all jumped as a brilliant flash of light bathed their fear-stricken faces. Lightning had struck the building.
“I sure hope that lightning doesn’t start any fires.” Ben said, drearily.
“We will just have to make sure it doesn’t.” Thomas answered after the echoing explosion had died away.
They walked, pushing the gurney to a waiting area in the center of the building.
“Thomas,” Ben asked, “What does the third level look like?”
“Like a hurricane swept everything out the windows.”
“So no windows?”
Thomas shook his head. “Why?”
“Well, I was wondering what to do when the water starts crawling up the second story windows, where to go.”
“You think it will come this far?” Cici whined.
“Got my fingers crossed that it don’t, but it ain’t looking good.” Ben said.
Chey asked in a shy tone, “No windows? Doesn’t that mean that the rain is getting in above us just as fast as it is below us?”
“Almost,” Thomas nodded.