Technically, Patty reasoned she would head back to the Loop and walk west until the road connected with the Bush Tollway or possibly further on past the airport. With some thought, she realized the airport was probably another antpile of DHS/FEMA chicanery, so she decided to stick with the Bush option.
Emotionally, it was a different matter altogether. In the past twenty four hours she had shot numerous, unamed people. She had witnessed the death of a young woman whose life had just begun and for which she felt responsible. She had helped three people get home only to discover their families were either dead or missing which futher raised her anxiety about her own home and Elena.
Most of all, for the first time since the Burnout, Patty was alone.
The scene was rather apt. The sun was setting in the west as she walked quietly around the innumerable still cars, vast piles of debris and vacant buildings the windows of which stared at her with dead eyes. There were few sounds other than the occasional bird, breeze or noises of unknown sources floating from the distance. She saw no living person. It was if everyone checked out and went home, wherever that was.
She had no plans to stop walking tonight although she admitted to herself she was tired. She needed this long walk as a penance for her sins. Her proverbial trial in the desert for forty days and nights and this was the first step. She ignored the potential for ambush and accident and focused only on the next foot step, one after another.
The sun eventually set and the sky went from light to purple and eventual darkness. She strained her eyes on the next visible mile and continued on sure there was not a bottomless pit waiting in the middle of the road to suck her down into the netherworld. Time passed.
She played games with her mind. She tried naming everyone she met in the past few weeks, but failed miserably as they all blended together in a blur of faces, clothing and expressions. She attempted remembering the towns, villages and wide spots in the road she had passed and again, they faded into a collage of buildings, faded signs and ruin.
The violence however, she remembered all too clearly. She could see the faces of every person she had gunned down as if it had happened moments earlier. She closed her eyes and tried to imagine something pleasant from the past before the Burnout, but all of her old memories had been excorcized from her conscience and replaced with things dark and sinister. Only when she ran painfully into the bumper of a silent Lexus did she snap out of her thoughts.
Then, to the west, the sun began to rise. The impossibility amused her and she moved forward with slightly more urgency at the idea of witnessing something unique. As the distance passed, the sky grew orange but flickered and waned with as much intensity as it had grown. As the understanding came to her, she negated her previous curiosity but enjoyed the practicality of the illumination.
At the interchange of Interstate 35 and 635, a massive oil storage tank, maybe two, had caught fire, the flames shot high into the sky illuminating the road and surrounding landscape. Somewhere underneath, a gas line feeding into the tanks or inadvertently placed nearby had ruptured and was feeding the blaze with impunity.
She stood and stared at the conflagration until the horns of Jericho sounded behind her. A single blat rising in volume as it grew closer. She saw coming toward her location, on the tracks below the bridge, running south to north, a single headlamp followed by a speeding juggernaut.
As it passed below the overpass she stood upon, she observed four massive pushers pulling multiple flatcars each loaded with sand colored military equipment. Armored carriers, trucks, and humvees, most intact but surprisingly, some damaged, yet in transit all the same. With the fire and thundering of the locomotives, she imagined she was in a Dantean inspired ring of hell witnessing the wages of industrialized sin.
She turned to watch the train pass under the bridge and saw them standing behind her in the shadow of an abandoned Staples Office truck. The boy was blond, roughly five years of age and wore shorts, sneakers and a dirty t-shirt. The girl was younger, probably no more than four, and wore a purple dress, cowboy boots and had a wild head of dark hair. She held a tiny purse in one hand and a faded stuffed bunny under the other arm. She and the boy were holding hands and staring at her.
Next to them, an old man, seventy if a day, wearing a straw cowboy hat and an old brown suit jacket. In one hand, a plastic grocery bag and the other held a cane which he leaned upon. There was no way the trio was related in any way by their appearance. Like her, maybe they were drawn to the fire's light, but thrown together by circumstance.
Patty took two steps toward them and the boy and girl darted behind the man and hid their faces against his pant legs. She squatted down, unzipped her fanny back and took something secret from within. It was her stash of protein bars which she had purchased in Shreveport and with the possible exception of Lamar, told nobody about them nor shared with any. They were her retort for the final miles home and to be used in an emergency only.
She took two out and held them out at arm's length to the children. They both looked up at the old man for approval. He nodded and they cautiously stepped forward, took the bars from Patty and went back to the man. Patty looked up at the elderly man, removed her pack and took her last MRE from inside and handed it to him. He looked at it for a moment before placing it in his shopping bag.
The man dug into his pocket, removed a small coin shaped object and handed it wordlessly to Patty. She examined it in the flickering light and saw it was a Saint Christopher medal. She slipped it into her pocket, nodded at the man and started walking west again. She did not look back.
The fire lit her path for several more miles across the flat landscape as she traveled. She lost herself again in her thoughts and pondered upon the train bearing military hardware. How did it get here? How was the train running? Where was it going? Was the United States at war? Had it been invaded? She had no answers.
The hours past and sometime before the real dawn, she took 161 south and began her trek past the airport toward the 183 interchange and then on to Fort Worth. At some point, as the sky lightened, she paused on the side of the road and snacked on some of her dwindling food supplies. She observed the situation with detached emotion. When the food ran out she would starve or be home. Pick one.
After she took a long drink of water, she felt something poking her from the fanny pack. Unzipping it, she saw the derringer had rearranged itself with the additional room provided by the missing protein bars. She hefted the tiny gun in her hand and broke it open. Two unfired .357 rounds sat in their respective chambers. This weapon would only be useful in a honkeytonk fight at ten feet or less she reckoned.
Not wanting it to go off accidentally so close to her core, she put it in the bottom of her backpack and promptly forgot about it. Standing, she put on the pack, picked up her carbine and started west by southwest on her journey.
Around noon, she felt lightheaded and dizzy and knew she had to rest at some point. Not wanting to sit in the grass off the road and there being very little cover, she took advantge of an abandonded minivan sitting in the far right lane. It was an older model which still had window cranks, so she lowered the back windows, hung some clothing over the glass and made herself comfortable lying on the floor between the seats.
"I'll rest for a few minutes and then start off again." she said to herself as she drifted off.
She woke with a start, her mouth dry and the sound of the rumbling engine. Engine? That made no sense, the van was long dead. She shook her head and figured the noise was thunder.She sat up, pulled down the shirt she had hung over the window and found herself looking at something black. Her eyes were still blurry and unfocused so she opened the door. It opened few inches, then stopped and someone let out a muffled sound.
The van door was yanked open and she was pulled from the vehicle by a pair of strong hands, the sunlight blinding her. She opened her mouth to say something but when the rifle butt struck her midsection, the air went out of her lungs and she fell to her knees. She reached for the Glock but felt it ripped from her finger tips before she had a firm grasp on it.
She looked up and saw a man in black with a load bearing vest hold up her backpack in one hand like a freshly caught fish. He then excitedly reached forward into the van and took out her carbine. Dropping the bag to the ground, he carefully examined the gun while Patty knelt on the ground holding her stomach.
The man turned to Patty, scowled at her and motioned to his co-workers. The world went black as a black bag was pulled over Patty's head and she was lifted to her feet. She felt her hands zip tied behind her and was dragged to what she presumed was a vehicle of some sort. She was put inside and moments later, the vehicle began to move with Patty, a prisoner inside.
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