To a Sudden Halt
by Tessa Bennett
The two-lane road was paved, which was a relief to Emily. Something about a gravel road leading to the middle of nowhere would have just been too much for her. She was trying to keep up her bravado, repeating to herself that this was a trial run for Chicago. If she could manage a broken-down car in rural Kansas, she could certainly manage a move to the big city. Having weighted her dilemma with such life-changing significance, she was confident she would succeed because she had given herself no other option.
The sun was starting to overwhelm Emily and she could feel her cheeks flushing with the heat. Her tank top was showing spots of sweat under her arms and at the small of her back, but she was grateful she had worn casual clothes and running shoes for the drive instead of the usual skirt and heels that she wore to the office. She couldn’t imagine having to walk this far hobbling in her three-inch stilettos that she wore to make herself look taller.
But not too far in the distance, she could see a mechanic’s shop. The building looked old but not abandoned. She could see that despite the wear on the exterior, the sign had been refinished in the last couple years with “Harris Family Garage” spelled out in vibrant blue paint across the slanted metal roof.
She tried to ignore her discomfort and focus on her destination, which was finally in sight. It was only a minute or two away. Then she would get the mechanic and some water for her parched throat. Just a little bit farther and everything would be fine.
* * *
Having established his first line of defense and gathered his armory, Gary needed a base of operations. His initial plan was to use the car and truck as a barricade until he remembered they were dead. What he needed was a concealed point where he could see an oncoming attack and get a clear shot without revealing his position.
He had no military training or formal education in tactics. Everything he knew came from the decades he spent playing out the worst-case scenarios, for the day the evils that killed Uncle Eddy came to Cassidy. It was training enough.
There were two mobile workstations against the far wall. Gary moved one against either side of Jimmy’s truck bed. Then taking a wrench from his tool box, he smashed the front and rear windows. Jimmy had been so drunk on Friday night, he wouldn’t remember if the windows had been broken in the crash or not. Besides, if Gary survived and if Jimmy survived, he could always replace the windows later.
Next, he grabbed a saw and cut the workbench in half. He positioned the halves upright inside the truck bed, using the planks to cover the busted-out rear window except for a sliver of space in the center. Like a medieval archer, he would use this balistraria to take his shot but keep from being too much in the open. Anyone entering the garage would see a pickup truck and some workstations. They would never see a shot coming.
Finishing his construction, Gary piled his weapons and ammunition into the bed of the truck. He also grabbed his lunch and a couple beers from the fridge, as well as the radio, just in case some news broke through the deafening silence of the dead circuits.
Kneeling down in the truck bed, he laid out his firearms in front of him with his extra bullets beside the appropriate gun. He practiced taking aim through the narrow slit. The lighting wasn’t particularly good because the electricity was out, but there was sunlight coming through the high windows. He had a clear view of the garage door but not the door to the office, though he was sure he could see anyone coming into the garage from the office before they would see him.
Confident in his position, Gary sat back in the truck bed and opened his lunch. Quietly, he ate his sandwich and waited. Part of him hoped someone would come, an intruder who would finally give him the opportunity to prove that he could defend his hometown and justifying his years of preparation. But another part of him hoped that no one would come, that the radio would turn on again, that he would hear a calm newscaster reassuring everyone that it had all been a false alarm, and Cassidy was still the only safe place in the world.
* * *
Emily was relieved when she finally made it to the garage. Now at her destination, she could feel the full extent of the fatigue. Her legs were rubbery with exertion and a fine film of sweat covered every part of her body; the skin on her shoulders was tight so she knew it was sunburned and her flushed red face felt as though it was radiating heat.
She leaned forward to stretch the aching muscles in her calves and let all the air rush from her lungs in one deeply satisfying exhale. When she got to Chicago, she would start walking and running every day, maybe even train for marathon, just to be sure she never felt this bad again.
Slowly coming upright, Emily saw the “Closed” sign hanging in the glass window of the front door. Her body ached for defeat, begging only to collapse at the foot of the building and pronounce the whole venture impossible. But her mind railed against those six little letters with anger. She had succeeded, she had managed to find a mechanic in the middle of nowhere — the dead car, the dead cell phone, the sun, even the sheer improbability of finding a garage when she had no idea where to look — she had overcome all the obstacles and she would be damned if one “Closed” sign was going to beat her now.
Emily started pounding on the door and yelling, “Hey! Hello! Is anybody in there? I need some help out here! My car broke down on the turnpike and walked all the way here! Please, I need some help!” She paused for a moment, to give an opportunity for response. But there was nothing — no voices, no movement. Her hand was sore, so she started kicking at the door with her foot.
“Goddamn it! Is anyone in there? I need help out here! What the hell is wrong with you? I need help! Dammit, open this door right now and help me!”
Emily’s knees felt as though they were about to buckle, so she sat down on the ground and leaned back against the locked door. She started running through her options. She could wait here and hope someone came back; she could keep walking and hope she found someone with a phone; or she could walk back to the car and hope someone came along the turnpike. But all these options just made her feel useless because they meant relying on someone, anyone, coming to her rescue. And she was done waiting for things to happen to her; it was time for her to make things happen herself.
Grabbing a nearby rock, Emily stood up and smashed the office door window.
* * *
Gary could hear the woman pounding on the locked office door, but he didn’t move to help her. Instead, he crouched down in the truck bed and watched the spot where the office led into the garage through the narrow slit between the two halves of the workbench. He knew she wasn’t from Cassidy, he knew everyone in town and her voice was too unfamiliar to be local. She could be what she said she was, just a girl whose car broke down when the EMP hit and needed some help. Or she could also be one of the enemies. If a weapon of mass destruction could hit a little town in Kansas, an enemy combatant could just as easily invade. He picked up one of the loaded guns at his feet and took aim.
After a while, the shouting and the banging stopped. When it seemed like she had finally gone, Gary set the gun down at his knees and sat back on his heels. He started to wonder if he really could have fired his weapon had she come into the garage. He had never imagined the enemy would be a young girl. In his mind, it was always someone who looked different from him and was easy to identify. Maybe it would be the face of a Viet Cong or the uniform of a Nazi soldier, but he would know the enemy when he saw it and would not hesitate to pull the trigger. But now...
His soul-searching was cut short by the sound of shattering glass.
* * *
For a moment, Emily stared in shock at the broken window. It was as if the rock had smashed the pane of its own accord, while she stood there and watched it happen. But now the damage was done. Careful not to cut herself, she reached through the empty space where the window had been and unbolted the door.
In front of her was a desk covered with papers and a landline telephone. She practically leapt across the room for the telephone, but when she lifted the receiver to her ear there was no dial tone. She pressed the cradle a few times, hoping to summon it back to life, but there was nothing.
Before she had an opportunity to consider the significance of two dead telephones and a dead car in the same day, she saw the refrigerator against the far left wall. Inside she had hoped to find some bottled water, but there was only an errant can of slightly warm beer. But it was something, so she cracked it open and started to chug. Though in her state of dehydration the alcohol made her feel a little nauseous, the liquid still soothed her dry mouth and throat.
Setting the empty can down on the desk, Emily looked at the useless phone with frustration and let out a small belch. Then she thought she heard a tiny metal click. Turning her attention to the garage at her left, she called out, “Hello? Is anyone there?”
No response came. She started to wonder if she was hearing things, if the sun and beer were making her hallucinate. But a few seconds later she heard it again — a tiny metal click. She was sure this time.
Emily followed the noise into the garage.
* * *
After Gary heard the glass break, someone opened the office door. He crouched down in the truck bed to make his body as small a target as possible and picked up the Glock-17. It was the gun he was most accurate with during target practice, so he trusted it as his first and best choice. As silently as he could, he slid out the magazine to make sure it was loaded. Satisfied that it was, he waited to see if the sound had drawn any attention from the office. All he heard was the sound of a can opening. Slowly and carefully, Gary he slid the magazine back into place with a small click. Again, he waited to see if his slight noise had attracted any attention.
Apparently, it had. A voice called from the office, “Hello? Is anyone there?” It was the girl’s voice from before, he was sure of it. She had broken into his office. But what for? Now he was convinced she was not just some kid with a broken-down car. If she had been, then she would have just seen the “Closed” sign and kept moving on in search of help. He had always assumed that the enemy would look like the enemy, but why not a young girl? Without concern for the sound, he pulled back the slide and loaded a bullet into the chamber.
Gary heard footsteps in the office coming toward the garage and took aim at the office entrance to the garage, positioning the barrel between the planks of the workbench halves. Why not a young girl, he thought. Of course, it made sense now. No one would suspect a girl on a country road looking for help. But Gary knew better. He was smart enough and he was brave enough to keep Cassidy safe, even from the most unlikely enemies. Now the day had come to prove he was worthy of the task.
As he saw her through the sight of his gun, Gary fired two shots just as in practice: one to the torso and one to the head.
* * *
Emily was dead before she hit the ground.
Copyright © 2012 by Tessa Bennett