The U.S. of After Chapter 14

Clayton

Without warnin’, Ralph pulled on the wheel of the truck when we caught sight of that big column of black smoke.  The truck went over toward the ditch so fast it caught a tire kind of funny and started up on it’s side.  Before we could blink we were seeing sky-ground-sky-ground.  I can’t explain it for the life of me, but when that truck stopped its tumble cycle the three of us was totally unharmed if not a little bruised.  The truck was trashed, windows spider-webbed, cab all crushed down and pulverized.  I was a little dizzy climbin’ out but was able to help the two of them onto solid ground where we were checking all of our odds and ends to see if we needed a doctor, like we’d be able to find one.

For a while nobody made a peep.  We just stood there on the side of the highway and looked at the large black smoke cloud that used to be McAlester.  Weirdest thing was that even though it was purt near obvious that the city was burnin’ I didn’t hear any sirens or any helicopters or anythin’.  For that matter there weren’t no people ‘round neither.  There were plenty of cars stopped in the middle of the highway and abandoned, but I just didn’t see any people wanderin’ around or hear any voices.  It was the eeriest kind of calm.

Amy and Ralph kind of sensed it too ‘cause of the drawn up looks on their faces.  She was lookin’ at me and givin’ me that expression like I was supposed to tell her what to do and Ralph was just starin’ at the black smoke and the empty cars.  It wasn’t long before Ralph started walkin’ away from us.  That dodge was all banged up.  The bed was all twisted sideways and it had pretty much spilled all its contents on the highway.  The last fuel drum had spilled out the back and there was diesel leakin’ all over the road.  We had to get away from this area before a spark made it blow up, no matter what them Mythbusters say about it.

“We gotta get out of here,” I told Amy.  I cautiously took her hand.  It was soft and warm.

“Y- Yeah,” she replied and pulled gently away from me to fold her arms and stare at the ugly ol’ sky.  “I wonder where Ralph is going.”

We watched Ralph go from car to car and look inside of each one.  All the cars had some kind of body damage; windows busted out, dents in the fenders, tail lights and headlights like empty eye sockets.  I guess he was lookin’ for keys.  I figured the best thing for us to do was to skirt McAlester and head southeast.  The highway would take us on along toward Texarkana prolly, but then if Texarkana was like McAlester maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to find a big city to hole up in.  I was beginnin’ to lose hope.  Where was all the people?

“Hey Ralph,” I shouted out.  “I don’t know if we’ll have much luck findin’ a vehicle that’s not broke down or outta gas.  We just need to keep walking or —“

“Here’s some keys!” he called back.  “I wonder if it will start?”

He hopped into the seat of a blue Ford Focus with the tail lights busted out and turned the key, but the starter made a funny sound kind of like the breathing of a lung cancer patient.

We ran over there to him and stood outside the driver’s side window just starin’.  Not much we could do.  He tried again, but the thing sat there clickin’.  Battery was dead.

“Why’d you do that?” asked Amy, her voice shaky.

“Do what?” snapped Ralph.

“Throw us in the ditch,” she said shyly as if speakin’ to an angry lion.

Ralph put his hands on the steerin’ wheel ten and two and stiffened out his arms straight as baseball bats.

“I don’t know,” he said calmly, evenly.  “It’s like the wheel just jumped.  Maybe I hit a pothole.”

I told him that didn’t make no sense and said somethin’ ‘bout him bein’ tired.  He lit out of that car like a wet bobcat and knocked me to the ground.  I was glad he left that gun in the truck ‘cause he was aiming to let me have it and prolly would have shot me.  His face was right in mine and I had smacked my head on the pavement.  He was on top of me, a wild animal, breathin’ in my face and shoutin’ curses.  I started prayin’.

“You don’t now what you’re talking about!” he was screaming.

By the time he was on top of me I heard Amy screamin’ for him to get off.  He was in a crazy rage.

“Get off him!” Amy shouted, and I cocked my eyes to the corner of my vision to see her standin’ straight as a board with that shiny pistol cocked and ready, her hands folded over it like a pro.  Somethin’ ran through my mind, only a flash, that she might have been given lessons.

Ralph jumped up off me and stood there with his hands in the air.  I scooted backwards across the pavement and noticed that I had a little open rip in my pants near my left calf just behind the knee.  Nothin’ important, just a small torn openin’, but there was some blood soakin’ the fabric.  I scooted back, a half-hearted crab walk, and stared at Ralph who looked at us both and then strangely started crying.  It was a deep, raspy sound as if he hadn’t felt anythin’ in so long that he forgot how to let it out.

It looked like he had been bottlin’ up that sadness for a very long time and whatever we did or whatever happened with the wheel of the truck or me askin’ if he was tired triggered the water works.  Ralph’s knees suddenly lost their tension and he sank down on the ground and sat not three feet from me, weepin’ deeply.  I watched Amy slowly lower the gun to her side, tuck it in her waistband, and then she ran over to squat down beside him.  Her right arm hesitated as she put a hand on his back.

We sat there on the pavement for a while, the smoke risin’ above the hills, the diesel fumes causin’ mirages on the road until the only sound was the hitchin’ noise that Ralph made when he breathed in.  I was thankful the fuel didn’t catch fire, but a little sad it was all gone.  Perhaps God figured we’d need the exercise.

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