The U.S. of After Chapter 16

Howard

It was not a difficult thing keeping the three of them safe in the truck while it spun out of control and flipped over twice.  It was all thanks to my Superior intervening, really.  It was another thing entirely to watch helplessly as Moloch spurred Ralph into a frenzy of rage.  The fiend would whisper in Ralph’s ear and then disappear, but while he was visible to me he looked as if he was being projected onto a screen with very old film that was out of focus and overexposed, winking in and out of view.

I was told to let this happen, so I did as I was told.  When Ralph leaped out of the small blue car and dove after Clayton my fists tightened and I could feel an indignant anger rising within me.  I was ready to pounce on Moloch but Amy’s gun brought silence to the air.  Moloch appeared briefly to watch Ralph’s shoulders shake with sorrow, a black vulture standing over him, and then he was gone.

That was about the time I saw the fake soldier strolling out of the woods, arms up over his head, his best salesman’s smile plastered on his face like a mask.  I was told that I should watch him closely and I was immediately standing beside Clayton as my charge rose from the ground and dusted off his pants.

“Yo kids,” called Ethan, his dark eyes flashing back and forth, never really focusing on anyone for too long.  He didn’t seem too bothered that Amy had pulled the gun out again and had it carefully aimed at his head.  “I just saw the wreck over here and wondered if I could be of assistance.”  His New Jersey accent was thick.

Amy and Clayton stood silent for a bit, and I could tell that they were thinking of something to say.  Ralph was wiping his eyes with the backs of his hands and slowly rising to his feet.  Finally Clayton took the initiative.

“I think we’re ok,” managed Clayton, putting a hand out to touch the shiny metal gun and press downward, causing Amy to lower it.  “A little shaken up, I guess.  And who’re you?”

Clayton took two steps forward and stood with his hands on his hips.

“Sergeant Farmer,” lied Ethan, his teeth strangely white, his hair a close cropped military style but his gait telling otherwise.  “Just got separated from my unit back in McAlester.  You don’t want to go that way.  It’s a real mess.  Whole place has gone ape and the militia are everywhere.  We were overrun.”

“We were going try to avoid the major cities,” said Amy, her voice strange in the eerie calm.  “We guessed that most of the larger ones would be kind of dangerous.”

Ralph made a clicking sound with his mouth and folded his arms.

“We don’t know you,” said Ralph cocking his head to the side, wiping at his eyes.  “You got some kind of ID or something?”

Strangely unflustered, Ethan pulled a wallet out of his pocket and flashed it around quickly.  It was his wallet, but he showed them the stolen military ID and held his fingers strategically across the picture.  I cringed.

“Ethan Farmer,” he explained, closing up his wallet and putting it away.  “First Airborne.  Got stuck in the lurch after the war was called off.”

“We lost the war, soldier man,” growled Ralph.  “Or didn’t you get the memo on that.”

Ethan smiled and put his hands back up.

“Look — uh, what’s your name, sir?” asked Ethan.

“No business of yours,” Ralph shot back.  “I still don’t believe you are who you say you are.  Where’s your unit?”

Ethan dropped his hands a bit and looked at Amy and Clayton.  “Look, that’s what I’m trying to tell you.  My unit just got wiped out back in McAlester.  Riots got out of control, militia took advantage or probably had people working on the inside.  We weren’t about to shoot innocent civilians, so…the best thing I can do right now is make sure that civilians get clear of this area.”

Amy and Clayton looked at one another while Ralph sat down in the driver’s seat of the Ford Focus, the door wide open, mumbling to himself.

“I ain’t got no problem with ya, Ethan — er — Sergeant Farmer,” said Clayton as if he were talking to a clerk who gave him too much change.  “I figure havin’ a soldier along will be good for helpin’ us find food and water.”

“Well,” smiled Ethan.  “That is exactly what I will do for you.”

This human had perfected the sick art of lying.

Their conversation was then interrupted by the roar of something in the sky, and as we stood in the middle of the highway all of us saw a massive object burning up the atmosphere around it moving from the east to the west.  It roared, a sound similar the rockets that used to  take off from Cape Canaveral.  It rumbled, shook the ground, and Amy sat down on the pavement and clutched at her chest as if she could not breathe.  All of them seemed to be frozen in place for a bit, looking skyward and instinctively raising their hands to cover their heads.  Ralph and Clayton stared.  Ralph’s face was stoic yet wide eyed while Clayton’s mouth curled on one side to form what could have been a faint smile, his eyes squinting in the sun.  Clayton mouthed something.  I heard and saw the light of his prayer.

The object passed off over the horizon to the west and within a few seconds was gone.  They all stood still and quiet as if something inside of them had died.  The air around them was silent, not even the birds or insects made a noise.  The humans simply looked at each other, one face turning to face another in a random sequence.

“What was that?”  asked Clayton.

“Looked like a meteor, “ said Ethan quietly.  “I wonder if it hit the ground or if it just passed on out of our atmosphere?  That thing was big.”

“I don’t care, man, let’s get in a car or something and get out of here.” Ralph said, his sentence seemingly strung together in one long word.  “One of these cars has gotta run.”

Ralph proceeded to go from vehicle to vehicle, looking at the steering columns, then hunting around the floor boards.  The rest of them followed his example all save Ethan who walked calmly to one of the older cars, a Mercedes, and opened the driver’s side door to sit behind the wheel.  He reached under the dashboard beneath the steering column and then pulled out some wires, yanked them from their leads and struck them together.  Nothing happened.  Batteries were all gone, he supposed, just like in McAlester.

“I think we are humping it from here.” he shouted, using terms he had heard in the movies.

Just as Ralph and Amy’s heads popped up above a mass of many colored car tops, the quake hit.  Cars started rocking back and forth on their springs and Ralph lost his footing and fell backward.  I looked around for Clayton and that was when I noticed that he was talking to someone, someone familiar.

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